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Low-stakes testing, technology and learning

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Facilitating peer-based formative assessment through online quizzes

Daniel Luxton, Teacher of Mathematics, Stanwell School, Vale of Glamorgan, UK

Picardo (Picardo , 2017) identifies the benefits of regular testing through the use of online quiz platforms. Socrative provides a simple facility for teachers to devise and distribute quizzes. However, such testing does not need to be entirely teacher-led. Students may perform better in assessments when their input is involved in the process – a phenomenon known as the ‘generation effect’ (Slamecka and Graf , 1978).

I first discovered the collaborative power of Socrative during my teacher training. As a revision exercise, I used Socrative with a group of Year 9 students, assigning the role of creating the quiz to the students. In groups, they devised eight quiz questions on the topic of percentages and ratio. Students were captivated by designing the quizzes on Socrative, more so than if the task did not involve the use of technology. Along with digital literacy skills, the students capitalise on their thinking skills, literacy skills, and communication skills in the context of their subject learning. The progress made, and skills developed, in both the planning and playing sessions, outweigh any impact on curriculum time.

Socrative allows users to choose from three styles of question: short answer, multiple choice and true/false. Once students have completed their quizzes, they are able to share them with the teacher by using a unique code. The naturally competitive nature of the students means they include ‘plausible distractors’, or even ‘red herrings’, to trick their peers. This encourages students to consider the topics in greater depth and explore potential misconceptions which they will then avoid in the future. During this stage of the task, students undertake pre-emptive formative assessment of their peers (Carless , 2007). The generation effect has prevailed; students have exceeded expectations in summative assessments for topics in which Socrative has been used as a revision aid.

Socrative shows a table of results so that students who are struggling can be easily identified, and questions that are causing the most issues can be flagged. Students observe the results, and are able to self-assess the quality of their own work, as well as peer-assess the entire class. They identify the strengths and weaknesses of their peers, making use of Socrative’s real-time results. This is a valuable opportunity for peer-assessment on a class-wide scale. Students identify the weakest areas of a topic and address the issue by teaching each other. This is an example of reactive formative assessment (Carless, 2007). Black and William (Black and Wiliam , 1998) note that feedback is most beneficial to students when it focuses on strengths and weaknesses, rather than individual marks. This task allows students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their peers.

It is through the autonomous nature of this task that the role of the teacher as a facilitator is made clear. Provided that sufficient guidance is given to them regarding the objectives, students writing their own questions and assessing their peers enables a more enjoyable and permeating learning experience.

Using technology to support the learning and retention of vocabulary in modern foreign languages

Helen Roberts, Head of French and Deputy Head of Sixth Form, Royal Masonic School for Girls, UK

For those who advocate the use of technology in our classrooms, the justifications are many – yet surely the most valid is where technology can ‘support, facilitate and enhance the processes involved in teaching and learning’ (Norrish et al., 2014). This is particularly pertinent when educational research continues to shed light on cognitive processes; we are more informed than ever about the way in which knowledge is acquired and have ever more tools at our disposal to facilitate this.

The challenge we face

The new modern foreign language (MFL) GCSE specifications require students to demonstrate a wide range of vocabulary in speaking and writing tasks, under examination conditions and without the support of preparation time or use of a dictionary. Teachers therefore need to address the challenge of helping learners to develop a sound vocabulary base. Barcroft (Barcroft , 2004) highlights the critical role vocabulary acquisition plays in a student’s ability to communicate effectively, whilst the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review (TSC, 2016) underlines the need for carefully planned vocabulary instruction and regular practice.

What the research tells us

Much research has been undertaken to understand the processes by which second language vocabulary is acquired and effective teaching strategies to support this acquisition. Nation (2005, p. 48) describes this as a ‘cumulative process where knowledge is built up over a series of varied meetings with the word’. No one teaching strategy is sufficient, and spaced retrieval, whereby vocabulary is ‘met again and again to ensure it is learned’ (Nation , 2005), is needed, with these meetings occurring close together in the early stages of learning. This is supported by Barcroft’s recommendation to ‘present new words frequently and repeatedly’ (Barcroft, 2004, p. 204). Conti (Conti , 2017) also recognises the need for ‘recycling opportunities’ so that language can be understood in different contexts. With this in mind, the traditional ‘teach, learn at home, test in class’ has limitations when the vocabulary is not regularly reviewed. Technology has a role to play here, to both engage and motivate students.

The ‘five-a-day’ approach

Enter Quizlet, a free website and app that allows you to create teaching ‘sets’ (lists of vocabulary). Students can use these sets to learn their vocabulary, using flashcards, learning games and self-testing. It also has an audio facility so that students can hear as well as see the words, enabling vital listening and pronunciation practice, as well as reinforcement of memory.

Many language teachers will already be familiar with Quizlet, but we have recently developed our approach to address the challenge presented by our new Key Stage 3 and 4 curricula for the more challenging GCSE, where recall of vocabulary is so critical for success. We call it our ‘five-a-day’: training our students to use the app for five minutes each day to learn assigned sets of vocabulary and conducting low-stakes testing on a weekly basis. Quizlet’s facility to produce customised tests in seconds minimises the time spent producing test material, and the length and format of the tests can be adapted for different groups.

This encourages the more student-centred approach advocated by Nation (2005) to improve both retention and use of new language. As we publish the full year’s sets of vocabulary to students at the start of the year, they know which set will be tested and can easily revise older lists to refresh their knowledge throughout the year. Some students even create their own lists, thereby taking ownership of their own learning.

Impact on students

Since the introduction of our ‘five-a-day’ approach, both my current Year 11 classes have seen a notable increase in their scores on vocabulary tests and are showing greater confidence in skills-based activities. The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive. One Year 9 girl recently said, ‘These weekly sets make it so much easier to learn, because you keep going over the same words every day until you just know them.’ Suddenly the challenge ahead seems less daunting for all.

Using education technology to aid retrieval practice

Richard McDonald: Director of English at Driffield School and Sixth Form

As an NQT, I would have rejected the relevance of multiple-choice testing in the secondary English classroom. With the assessment of English being grounded in the quality of written responses, I would have argued that these should be the foundation for assessment.

However, the change in the recent GCSE specifications has highlighted how a knowledge-based curriculum is important in English. More needs to be done to support students’ retention of the details of Literature set texts.

Students can improve their ‘retrieval strength’ by regularly recalling previously learnt knowledge (retrieval practice). In his research into metacognition, Quigley (Quigley , 2016) remarks that ‘repeated practice can help strengthen information retrieval’. Likewise, his summary of the power of testing on memory (an overview of findings from Gates (2017) and Pashler et al (2007)) suggest that regular quizzing is likely to be highly effective.

I trialled two apps for this purpose in my classroom, both of which were chosen because they did not require students to have their own devices.

Quick questions

The first app was Plickers (, which was recommended by a colleague at a TeachMeet in Hull. Plickers allows the teacher to create multiple-choice questions for a class and then record the students’ responses on their device (even if WiFi is not available).

Each student had a unique QR code, which they held up for me to scan; the orientation of the code is used to show their answer. I was then able to scan their answers with the app on my device, highlighting their names in red or green to show whether their answers were correct or not.

Plickers was particularly useful in checking key concepts at the start of a lesson. This allowed me to direct students to appropriate tasks to either address misconceptions or to develop their understanding further. The main objective of the quizzing was to test students’ ability to recall key facts, which increased as the testing became more regular.

Extended quizzes

A drawback to Plickers was that asking several questions did take up a lot of lesson time. This drove me to seek longer quizzes, such as QuickKey ( This app, like Plickers, focuses on the use of multiple-choice responses. With QuickKey, the teacher can set up to 60 questions in a quiz. Students answer by filling in ‘bubbles’ to indicate their answers (on a pre-printed sheet free from the QuickKey website) that are then scanned by the teacher’s device. The results are then exported into a downloadable spreadsheet.


It became evident from the essay responses produced that both strategies supported students in recalling details of their GCSE set texts. Embedding retrieval practice into classroom routine meant that students were more consistently focused on meeting the expectation to remember key details.






Barcroft J (2004) Second language vocabulary acquisition: A lexical input processing approach. Foreign Language Annals 37(2): 200–208.
Black P and Wiliam D (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: Kings College.
Carless D (2007) Conceptualizing pre-emptive formative assessment. Assessment in Education 14(2). Available at: 171–184.
Conti G (2017) How many new words should you teach per lesson? Available at: (accessed 2018).
Nation P (2005) Teaching vocabulary. Asian EFL Journal 7(3): 47–54.
Norrish D, Baker M, Edwards D, et al. (2014) Educate 1-to-1. Self-published.
Picardo J (2017) How to do IT: Using digital technology to support effective assessment and feedback. Impact 1(1): 22–23.
Quigley A (2016) The Confident Teacher: Developing Successful Habits of Mind, Body and Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.
Slamecka N and Graf P (1978) The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory 4(6): 592–604.
TSC (2016) Modern foreign languages pedagogy review. A review of modern foreign languages teaching practice in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. Available at: (accessed 2018).
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