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Enhancing subject-specific literacy through low-stakes testing

Written by: Adam Lawrence
4 min read

Challenging students to think hard is bread and butter in teaching and learning at The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School. But how does a department enhance literacy whilst also providing intellectual rigour? Our department of eight theology and philosophy subject specialists is tackling this head-on with a commitment to enhancing subject-specific literacy.

Having explored Cognitive Load Theory, the department decided to delve deeper into knowledge retrieval and its effective application. A combination of ingenuity and creativity (Willingham, 2018) seemed like a good starting point and, conscious of students’ enjoyment of the course, it was essential that assessment methods were fun and engaging. Of paramount importance was for students to be questioning theological-philosophical arguments that drive key movements in the contemporary world, and we agreed that literacy is fundamental to this (ISRSA Statement on Religious Studies, 2017). How could low-stakes testing enhance this department vision?

Application of assessment methods

A mixed-method approach was designed to bring about change (Thomas, 2017), and results clearly show that, with regular testing, students are more effective in their accurate use of subject-specific terminology. A variety of assessment methods were used, including:

  1. testing of subject-specific terminology embedded into sentences tested on paper fortnightly
  2. testing of subject-specific terminology embedded into sentences tested on paper weekly (highly effective)
  3. in-depth topic tests drawing out vocabulary effectively deployed fortnightly (most effective)
  4. online quizzes and tests including use of Kahoot and Show My Homework weekly (effective)
  5. a control teacher who continued delivering the course with the standard department testing methods with topic tests each half term.

What are the potential benefits of regular assessment in the context of cognitive load?

Although the data-gathering process is still underway, teachers are seeing increased engagement of subject content from students. Pedagogical methods are higher on the agenda in discussions within the department, and with that comes an even greater desire for students to maximise their potential using greater levels of subject-specific literacy. In the classrooms there is a buzz of excitement in anticipation of the next challenge, and teachers are questioning how higher-level vocabulary can be most effectively deployed from student to student on an individualised basis. Of course, a key advantage is the metacognitive benefit in identifying what vocabulary a student has not understood or learned (Bjork and Bjork, 2009), and this is measured qualitatively by each teacher.

What are the potential disadvantages of the assessment methods?

There is undoubtedly a time factor in focusing on regular assessment, especially using a mixed-method approach where some low-stakes testing methods may not appear popular to certain students, e.g. those students who do not enjoy regular vocabulary testing within a humanity subject (Hartwig and Dunlosky, 2011). When lessons are to be pitched high and students are to be engaged in exploring answers to the ultimate worldview questions through a critical realist approach, it will be interesting to see whether the impact on learning has a different outcome.

What has been the real impact of retrieving vocabulary within the classroom?

Are lessons in theology and philosophy best spent focusing upon reasons, evidence, argumentation and textual analysis or does time need to be spent tackling the core subject knowledge and deep meaning of language? There comes a point in lessons where, despite aiming for all students to progress rapidly in order to critically evaluate theological-philosophical structures and arguments, the most important thing first of all is to ensure that students have a solid understanding of the language that they need to use. In reviewing measurable evidence, initial data findings reveal that students are effectively using subject-specific terminology to greater effect within critical evaluation of topics studied, so the impact is a positive one.

Taking a particular example, one teacher now regularly uses a vocabulary-related starter activity to build upon previous learning and linking topics. Students expect this at the start of a lesson and have prepared for the activity. This in turn means that literacy is high on the students’ agenda, and it is given additional gravitas in the learning journey through the course. Before this research was carried out, this particular group would not have been in the habit of a particular starter activity, so an element of expectation and setting of standards has been established.

The aim is to enhance the use of subject-specific terminology to enable students to critically analyse and evaluate with greater rigour and to deploy a wider repertoire of vocabulary, which is constantly topped up throughout the duration of a course. Data is currently being gathered, and conclusions midway through the research indicate an enhanced understanding of subject-specific terminology and an increased use of a wider range of more technical language than might otherwise have been the case.

Carrying out this research has changed the dynamic of the department in the most positive of ways, as teachers are collaborating vibrantly; there is a real excitement in the corridors at Haberdashers’.


Bjork EL and Bjork RA (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In: Gernsbacher MA, Pew RW, Hough LM et al. (eds) & FABBS Foundation, Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York, NY, US: Worth Publishers, pp. 56–64.

Hartwig M and Dunlosky J (2012) Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 19(1): 126–134.

ISRSA (2017) Statement on religious studies: Executive summary. Available at: (accessed 15 November 2018).

Thomas G (2017) How to Do your Research Project: A Guide for Students (3rd edition). London: Sage.

Willingham D (2018) Tom Bennett speaks to… Professor Daniel Willingham. ResearchEd 1(1). Available at: (accessed 11 January 2019).

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