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Can we fatten the pig by weighing it?

I have often heard the expression ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’ used by teachers and leaders bemoaning the amount of testing that young people undergo during the course of a school year. So I was surprised to see a chapter on the benefits of testing whilst reading What If Everything You Knew about Education Was Wrong (1) and even more surprised to see that this chapter was suggesting that testing could improve retention of knowledge across a topic, not just that which was being tested.

As we move back to terminal examinations, helping pupils with their retention of knowledge has again become an area of interest to teachers, and this led me to investigate methods that could be used to help pupils to remember the numerous facts that have to be retained in Science, so that they can be recalled after two years of study. Discussions in our school research meetings also raised the importance of pupils having knowledge in long term memory to free up space in short term memory for problem solving and application of the ideas they had been taught. If we can give pupils strategies to retain information and if testing could be used as a way of helping pupil’s retention then this, I felt, was worth looking at more closely and my research project began.

Initially I decided to carry out a quick pilot project with a class of year 8 pupils to look at the effect of testing. A group of middle ability year 8s was chosen and at the start of each lesson on the topic of Acids and Alkalis a slide was shown with 10 questions for pupils to answer at the back of their exercise books. The pupils answered the questions and then we went through the answers with pupils either putting their hand up to volunteer an answer or I read out the answers. No other feedback was given to pupils and no marks were collected in ensuring the testing was low stakes.

At the end of the term, pupils sat an exam which contained questions on the three topics that had been studied and their results were compared to pupils in the rest of the year group for this topic and to their own results for the questions on other topics. Pupils in this group performed significantly better in the Acids and Alkalis topic than they had done on the other topics – on average achieving 1-1.25 levels higher in this topic than on the other topics they had studied.

Pupils in this group also performed better in this topic than one of the two high ability classes in the year group by, on average, 2/3 of a level. Pupils in the other year half, it transpired, had also been shown the recap questions at the start of their lessons and a similar pattern in results was found here, with pupils performing better in the Acids and Alkalis topic than in the others they had studied that term. It was not simply the case that all groups performed best in the Chemistry topic as 3 of the 6 groups performed better in the Physics part of the test and one group performed consistently across all 3 topics.

Initial results have therefore been very promising and this quiz idea is being used with groups in years 10 and 11 in GCSE Chemistry this year. The idea for this research has evolved further as I have encountered ideas to support retention shared by the Learning Scientists at

Tutors of pupils in years 10 and 11 have been looking at the six strategies for effective learning shared on this website with their tutor groups during morning registration sessions. Several teachers across the school have been using these ideas in their teaching and the plan for my further research has evolved to incorporate some of these ideas and to see how easy they are for teachers to implement on a day to day basis.

Jo Plumb

SLE/AST Science

Cambourne Village College

(1)Didau, D. (2015) - What if Everything You Knew about Education Was Wrong. Crown House Publishing

Additional reading:

Henry L. Roediger III – various research papers, all available at

The Learning Scientists -

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