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Assessment for Retention

Neurologist Judy Willis claims that we need to know a student’s strengths and interests if we want to construct enduring understanding:
Assessment For Retention
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Neurologist Judy Willis claims that we need to know a student’s strengths and interests if we want to construct enduring understanding:

By incorporating students’ strengths and weaknesses into authentic learning experiences from the beginning of each unit, while at the same time including opportunities for feedback, metacognition and revision, we promote a variety of cognitive and emotional benefits that can lead to academic success (Willis, 2014).
In an article titled ‘5 Assessment Forms That Promote Content Retention’, Willis argued for the following assessment types that can assist students not only remember, but also learn:
  1. Tests where notes or textbooks are permitted;
  2. Take-home tests;
  3. Student-made tests;
  4. Projects pre-approved by the teacher, and
  5. Revision and retests to build skillsets.
We can see here that memorisation isn’t prioritised, students are given the opportunity to direct how they are assessed, and revision is an option reflect on the assessment types you give your students.
Further to this, Oyed & Oyed (2019) argue that brain-based assessment provides opportunity for experimentation and feedback, noting that neural networks can be strengthened and developed through trial and error.
Elizabeth Cox’s TED Talk, ‘The Surprising Link between Stress and Memory’, reminds us of the impact of stress on the brain when conducting assessment, such as exams. While memories can be stored throughout the brain, the ability to remember relies on the pre-frontal cortex. When we are stressed, the amygdala can inhibit or lessen the pre-frontal cortex’s activity. Strategies to lessen the risk of being unable to remember during stressful situations include:
  • Preparing in conditions similar to those that will be experienced in a test situation;
  • Completing practice questions under time pressure, or at a desk rather than on a couch;
  • Exercise, and
  • Deep breaths to counteract the fight/flight response.
There are many debates in education about the most appropriate types of assessment to help students retain information. The research tells us that the arguments aren’t that simple. Tests can help us retain information if we are involved in setting the questions, or are asked to make connections during open-book exams. Experiments or authentic assessments that ask us to learn from trial and error can also be effective in helping us learn and commit that learning to memory.
If you are an educator, what can you learn from these points when it comes to your assessment? Can you make small adjustments to turn your assessment into an authentic learning experience?

References and Further Reading

Oded, I. & Oded, Y. (2019). How to Assess Learning with Brain in Mind?. In K. Graziano (Ed.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1362-1366). Las Vegas, NV, United States: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved from
McTighe, J., and Willis, J. Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience. ASCD.
Firth, J., Smith, M., Harvard, B., and Boxer, M. (2017). Assessment as learning: The role of retrieval practice in the classroom. Approaches to assessment. Retrieved from:
Willis, J. (2014, March 17). 5 Assessment Forms That Promote Content Retention. Edutopia.
© CQUniversity, 2020
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Learning and Memory: Understandings from Educational Neuroscience

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