Color Coding Recall Attempts to Assess Learning

Due to Hurricane Irma, I have not seen my students in four days.  We are right in the middle of the most difficult unit of study for the entire year.  To combat this difficulty, I make things easier…but not in the way you may be thinking.  I make it easier with more frequent low-stakes assessments of learning.  Now, I certainly understand that sort of talk is the optimistic teacher shining through.  While I don’t think I can, nor do I want to, undermine the intelligence of my students, I do think framing studying/practice in this way can change the perception of the work.  With my students, once they see the fruits of their focused labor, they are much more likely to repeat the work.  I believe students are burnt out on study skills (rereading, highlighting notes, etc.) that don’t work and they are reluctant to try anything because there’s no reward.  One of the main goals of my class is to present researched learning strategies that work across a number of class settings and with almost all types of material.  We spend considerable time in class focusing practice on using these strategies.  I have previously written about my use with these strategies here, here, here, and here.  Through their implementation of the strategies, they will see improvement and it’s not nearly as difficult as they may believe.  The ultimate goal is for students to see the value in the strategies and they become their study/practice habits.  

So, since I have not seen the students in four days and because this is a very material dense unit of study, today is perfect for some spaced practice of material to review and assess learning.  It has been anywhere from four to nine days since the students have seen this material; assuming they’ve done zero studying outside of class.  Since we’ve been out due to Hurricane Irma preparations, I very reasonably doubt they’ve looked at the material.  

Here’s how I plan to use spaced practice and retrieval practice to review this unit’s material while allowing students practice assessing their learning:

Provide questions Generally, I want to use questions requiring recall and not recognition.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with recognition, but recall more genuinely assess learning.  For example, you may guess and correctly answer a multiple-choice question (recognition) but will find it much harder to guess correctly with an essay or fill-in-the-blank (recall) statement when no word bank is given.  I’ll touch on this again later, but another disadvantage with recognition guessing is students tend to forget they guessed and received credit.  They just see the final grade and make an assumption they know the material well; a dangerous overconfidence.

I ask the students to use only their brain during their 1st attempt at answering all of the questions.  They should not look on another student’s work or in their notes or book.  This truly lets the student know what they can recall…with no help.  If there was a test today, this is what you would’ve known.  After they answer as completely as they can all of the questions (they usually answer around 50-70% of the questions) I have them highlight in purple their answers before moving on.

*This is such an important pause in the work.  The students literally highlighting their work and you figuratively highlighting the fact that this is what they know.  Anything recorded on their paper after this point is potentially new learning, but shouldn’t be factored into their current knowledge.

The 2nd attempt at answering allows students to use their notes and only their notes; still no help from other students.  After all are finished, the students are to highlight any answers gained from their notes OR changed because of their notes in yellow.  

*Students will encounter one of two experiences here: 1. My notes are sufficient and completed the rest of the questions I could not finish using only my brain.  2. My notes are not sufficient.  I still have holes in my learning.  I need to take better notes.  

The 3rd attempt allows students to use other students to assist with filling in any holes they still may have in their answers.  I encourage conversations on the topics at hand to facilitate further teaching and learning by the students themselves.  When finished, students should highlight any answers gained OR any answers changed due to conversations in orange.

*In my experiences with this activity, students generally have less orange highlighter on their page then any other color.  That’s a good thing.  Obviously, the ultimate goal is to have all purple highlighter and no yellow/orange; demonstrating they know the information.


Now we grade.  We discuss answers and make sure we’re all on the same page.  I have the students record 3 different grades at the top of the page.  One grade is their grade using only their brain and is recorded again in purple.  The second grade is with their notes and is recorded in yellow.  The final grade includes usage of peers and is recorded in orange.  

*I make a sure to let the students know their ‘test’ grade on this is in purple.  They shouldn’t necessarily leave today thinking the last grade in orange is their true grade of understanding.  Hopefully they now know more than they did when we began, but they shouldn’t make assumptions.  

A last point I make with the students is the fact they can take this strategy with them anywhere.  In their dorm room or apartment for college, there’s no reason they cannot sit down with three highlighters and work through this activity and have a better understanding of their learning.  That’s what makes all of the learning strategies so great, in my opinion.  They’re easily applied.  No real bells and whistles.  Just researched methods that work.  

The main difficulty I usually encounter with this activity is slowing down my students.  They want to skip steps and just write down all the correct answers as quickly as possible.  I have very intelligent students in my class and they’re not very acquainted with the feeling of getting things wrong…another healthy aspect of this activity.  Getting the students to slow down and follow the process takes up a great amount of time with the first few implementations.  

Finally, below are a few comments I heard today from students while completing this activity.  All comments are completely genuine and really clue me into this activities worth:

“I didn’t even know I knew that.”

“I’m so proud of myself for remembering that.”

“Four days takes a toll on your memory.”

“Wow…I didn’t know anything from the day I was absent.”

“I cannot believe my notes are wrong.”

“I really appreciate this.”

26 thoughts on “Color Coding Recall Attempts to Assess Learning

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  1. I use a similar system:
    Cycle 1: Set of short answer questions on previous (retrieval) and new topic (generation).
    Cycle 2: Evaluate your answer using a traffic light system: red (guess), yellow (unsure) and green (confident).
    Cycle 3: Confer with friends – convince them your greens are correct and get their greens for your reds.
    Cycle 4: Assess final score with correct answers. At this stage, each question is also discussed and elaborated on.
    Step 5: Reflect on your score in each phase.

    I have not yet formalised the scoring like you have. Will definitely incorporate that and see the results.

  2. A great progressive activity that highlights retrieval practise at its best. I am leading an INSET on the Learning Strategies and will definitely use your example here as my battle with staff previously when introducing it for 6th Form tutorials is there are no examples. Despite giving examples in image form they wanted more! #i’llplanitforyou !

  3. Thank you – already use the do it once, now do it twice (with notes), now ask a friend approach, and mark all this sort of stuff as formative.
    Will add the highlighting aspect – make it easier for me – have up to now , asked them to use different colours, but having a set of hghtlighters in the room would make it easier for me to pick up who I need to pick up.
    My students have better questions after an activity like this.

  4. Use something similar for low stakes retrieval at start of lessons – brain, book, buddy. Like the addition of highlighter.

  5. This is fantastic! I don’t know why no one has ever shown me this in my 13 years of teaching. This could easily be wotkshopped at a faculty meeting where teachers read an article or watch a video beforehand, then recall alone, with notes, then together. Have you ever done that?

    1. I’ve never done that…but it makes perfect sense. This strategy is widely applicable, so a faculty meeting would be really appropriate.

      1. This is the kind of thing some administrators geek out about, and it would be really easy to demonstrate as a useful tool.

  6. Wow this is fantastic! Such a huge improvement on the simple task of doing some practice problems or taking a ‘quiz.’ Will apply tomorrow!
    Something I would add is a written reflection if you don’t already do so. I know the exercise is already reflective but having to synthesize a few sentences on what I know/know now/need to work on/still have questions on makes a big difference for my students and for me.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. Can you give me a rough timeline for how long each stage takes? Thanks!

  8. WOW … that’s an awesome process. Because what you think you know that you really don’t know is always a huge factor.

    You could turn it into a 3-class session. Highlight and grade the purples, hand it back and have them use the notes, highlight and grade again, hand it back and have them get in groups and use their friends.

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