How not to implement low-stakes testing

This is the second in a series of short blogs, ‘How Not to Implement Your Brilliant New Curriculum’ in which I hope to share some of the successes of our school’s curriculum review, and more importantly to point out where we made mistakes, so that other hard-working English teachers can avoid them!

 This one is about regular, low-stakes testing. When we first introduced low-stakes testing, it was an enormous amount of fun.

This was a big surprise to me.

As Head of Faculty, I had been genuinely afraid that regularly testing students’ ‘knowledge’ might reduce my beloved subject to some Gradgrindian nightmare, where we horse-whipped bored teenagers through endless tests about ‘facts’.

The reality was a lot more enjoyable.

By starting each lesson with a brief review of key knowledge, and introducing weekly multiple-choice tests to check they were retaining that knowledge, we found that students really were learning their stuff. 

For the first unit of the year – An Inspector Calls– the atmosphere in the class was much more positive and engaged than it had been in the same class the previous year.


Because they knew that Eva Smith refused a promotion! They knew that Gerald Croft’s mother was upper-class! They knew that Sybil Birling could be described as ‘superior’ and ‘dismissive’! There was a sense amongst the students (for the first time in English for some of them) that they were definitely ‘getting better’. By four weeks into the course, many of them were clearly feeling that – hey – they might actually be ‘good’ at English after all. They even – I saw it with my own eyes – walked into class a little differently (smiling, making eye contact, perhaps even with a little swagger.)

Then we hit a bump, which I hope to help other people avoid.

And so I can now proudly tell you How Not to Implement Low-Stakes Testing:

  • Read some great guidance on how to write quality multiple-choice tests, such as these provided by my previous school’s Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning, Chloe Butterfield 
  • Spend a long time writing short (5 to 10 question) multiple-choice tests, to ensure all students know what you need them to know
  • Make the early questions relatively easy to make sure nobody gives up straight away and falls asleep, head in hands
  • Test students on things in a sensible, cumulative order (e.g. ensure a thorough knowledge of plot, then a good understanding of character, then how plot and character link to larger themes…)
  • And then, to undermine all of this, do not move away from the multiple-choice format until relatively late in the course. That way, when you suddenly introduce a non-multiple-choice test, in which students have to answer direct questions (e.g. ‘write down a quotation that could link to the theme of guilt’) you will find out that many students are surprisingly stumped.

    Sadly (and I mean that genuinely – it made me very sad when it happened) those hardest-hit and most confused by this situation are likely to be those who desperately need their grade 4 or 5, and who thought that they were doing well.

To mitigate against this, we have tried a few things that have all worked very well.

Unapologetically, these are mostly stolen from excellent bloggers in the #TeamEnglish crew, and many thanks to each of you for the huge benefits that these had for our students and our teachers!

  1. Teach students how to actually commit things to memory.See my previous blog for some tips on how to do this.
  2. Start each lesson with a brief review of key knowledge, e.g. the fantastic ‘five-a-day starters’ popularised by the equally fantastic @TLPMsF

    I know that we were very late to the party with these!They really were great, and made sure that students got used to recalling knowledge themselves.


  3. Identify four or five key questions that all students need to be able to answer by the end of the unit. Then ask them again and again and again.I stole this one from @jo_facer, who did this brilliantly in the Jekyll and Hyde booklets that she shared recently here.

    What I noticed is that in these booklets, the starter activities often ask different iterations of the same question,overa number of lessons, e.g.

    Lesson 1

    ‘Who first divided human consciousness into the ego, superego and id?

    next lesson

‘What theory did Sigmund Freud create?’

          next lesson

‘Who invented the idea of the ego, superego and id’?


This minimizes the chance that someone finishes one of these units with no idea whatsoever who Freud was.

4. Use retrieval practice challenge grids

This final great idea was another steal, from the genius Kate Jones at– I think it was shared on Twitter by @robin_macp and I took it from there.

Here is a retrieval practice grid that I used for the material covered in term 1 in our school (An Inspector Calls) and the first week of term 2 (Power and Conflict Poetry):

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 13.40.45

Using these grids allowed teachers to:

  1. Ensure students could generate answers themselves
  2. Use questioning to ensure they had secure understanding of these answers
  3. Discuss and evaluate the comparative quality of different answers
  4. Start to make links across different texts and themes
  5. Ensure that prior learning from earlier in the year was not forgotten

Taken together, these approaches ensured that students still enjoyed the benefits of ‘quick-win’ low-stakes testing (the whole thing takes no more than 10 minutes if you go at a clip.)

However, they also got used to retrieving a lot of information from their long-term memory, and demonstrating that they understood and could apply that information.

Far from creating a dull classroom peopled only by ‘facts, facts, facts’, this brought our classrooms alive with spirited discussion that was well-informed by a solid knowledge base.

And that was fun.

Hope that these blogs are proving useful – any feedback of course very welcome.

Next week, I’ll share perhaps the most difficult area of curriculum review that we undertook last year: how not to implement the direct instruction of vocabulary.

It all came good in the end, but it was a surprisingly tricky thing to do well!


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