I watch a lot of people teach. Without protesting too much, it is a genuine privilege to be allowed into colleagues’ classrooms. I am ever grateful.

Since I have been observing colleagues grapple with the complexities of helping pupils learn, I have learnt a great deal about how teaching might be improved. There is no universal panacea to cure all teaching & learning ills – just a diligent attention to detail and a willingness to try. In feedback from a training session I delivered recently to subject leaders, a colleague wrote that my input was really helpful in that, “John reminded us of what we know, but don’t do.”

Encouraging pupils to retrieve from their memories what we hope they have learnt from what we taught them in the past is a key element of effective teaching, in that the process of retrieving what we have taught them helps pupils make a “permanent change to their long-term memory” – the best definition I have come across of learning.

So far, nothing new. But I worry that lesson starter retrieval tasks have become so procedural to both teachers and pupils, that they have evolved into pedagogic white noise and don’t advance pupils’ thinking and learning.

Here is an analysis of a multiple-choice starter task taught in two different ways – one which advances pupils’ learning and improves the teacher’s teaching and one that doesn’t nearly as much. I offer it up in a spirit of humility. I hope you find it useful.

Two pedagogic approaches to multiple-choice lesson starter tasks

As a lesson starter task, a teacher begins a lesson with 5 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) which require pupils to recall what they learnt 3 weeks ago about volcano formation. There are 30 pupils in the Year 10 GCSE class. The questions are typically like this one:

Circle the right answer.

1. Which one of the following is the least likely location for a volcano to form?

A. Constructive plate boundaries

B. Transform boundaries

C. Destructive plate boundaries

D. Hot spots

Scenario A

The 5 MCQs are printed on an A5 piece of paper. The pupils answer the questions. After three minutes the teacher asks pupils to put their hands up for an answer to question 1. The pupil she chooses gives the correct answer. She repeats the process for each of the five questions. Every time a pupil gives an answer it is correct. She instructs the class to circle the correct answer in green pen on their A5 sheets if they chose a wrong answer to any of the questions. To finish, she asks, “Who got 5 right? Who got 4 right? Who got 3 right?” Then, she hands out 15 glue sticks for the pupils to stick the A5 sheets in their exercise books. A number of boys muck about with the glue sticks and the teacher admonishes them.

Critique of Scenario A

  • The paper has had to be cut to size which wastes preparation time. The paper has had to be photocopied, wasting physical resource.
  • The pupils are able to see their neighbours’ answers. As an assessment of what the pupils know and understand, it is contaminated by the high level of copying from other pupils.
  • Only pupils who feel confident they have the right answer are likely to have put their hands up.
  • There is no reason to believe that those pupils who circle the right answer understand why it is the right answer.
  • She doesn’t enquire as to which questions pupils got wrong.
  • With 30 pupils and five MCQs there were 150 answers across the class; the teacher heard five of the 150 answers.
  • No sense of what pupils found difficult is gleaned from the swathe of assessment information she had access to.
  • By asking who got all the questions right, the teacher discourages those who may have got some wrong from volunteering that information. Some pupils who got some wrong may put their hand up to claim that had answered all the questions correctly, especially if they know the teacher does not follow up such information.
  • The glue wastes money and the sticking in wastes time, as does the ensuing poor behaviour by the boys with the glue sticks.
  • It is quite possible that the teacher will look at the books which have the A5 paper copies of the MCQs glued inside to assess pupils’ understanding, but that is, arguably, adding unnecessarily to workload beyond the classroom.

Scenario B

Show me boards (SMB) and pens are on each table when pupils enter the room. The pupils knew from the previous lesson that the starter task would be on volcano formation. The teacher projects the first MCQ on the board and gives pupils 15 seconds thinking time before they write down their answer and immediately turn the board over to hide their answers from other pupils. The teacher gives a brisk “3-2-1 Show Me!” instruction and each pupil holds up the SMB. The teacher gives one of the pupils with a correct answer the chance to explain their thought process which helped them arrive at the answer. She sees that over 40% of the class got the wrong answer. She repeats the SMB process for each question. The final MCQ gives 50% incorrect answers. She asks pupils to pair up with someone who has a different answer, and for them to explain to their partners, in turn, how they arrived at their answer. The pairs then decide which answer is most likely to be correct and hold up their jointly agreed answer on a single SMB, using the “3-2-1 Show Me!” procedure. At the end of the process, the teacher decides to reteach volcano formation, adapting her planned lesson because of the insecure understanding revealed by the answers to the MCQs.

Critique of Scenario B

  • This is a good example of pupils thinking hard about the answer and how they arrived at the answer.
  • They knew what the starter task would be which gave them the chance to revise.
  • There is no time wasted on photocopying and guillotining. 
  • No funding is wasted on glue.
  • Pupils are trusted to work cooperatively and with no poor behaviour.
  • There is a comprehensive sense of who understands what across the class.
  • Every pupil is included and engaged at all times.
  • There is an opportunity for pupils to practise their thinking and oracy skills within a subject specific context.
  • The teaching is adapted according to what the children have understood from previous lessons.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t assess pupils’ learning if you do nothing with the information the assessment provides. You might decide to continue with your teaching as planned as a result of the information the assessment provides (the pupils might have given 100% correct answers, or you might defer addressing misconceptions to a future lesson), but at least that is a conscious choice.
  • Don’t assume that pupils have learnt something when they write down the correct answer in green pen having originally got the answer wrong.
  • Do use the most efficient method of conducting an assessment in terms of time, resources and pupil behaviour.
  • Do adapt what you had planned to teach according to what the assessment information tells you.
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