By Adam Boxer
Hi there, is that Mrs Roberts? Oh hi, it’s Mr Boxer here how are you? Great, yeah I’m fine thanks. I just wanted to quickly talk to you about Danny’s homework, is he there? Yeah, I’d love it if you could get him and put us on loudspeaker….Hi Danny, you ok? Great. So Mrs Roberts, Danny’s homework is done online and he revises for quizzes and then completes the quiz and I see what he’s written. Danny — a question for you: what is the word equation for photosynthesis?…Danny?…Did you hear the question ok? Do you need me to repeat it…ok, what’s the answer?…Do you know the answer, Danny?
So this is all a bit strange now Danny, because you gave an absolutely perfect answer when you did the quiz at home, but now you can’t tell me the answer at all…Listen carefully — I’m not going to accuse you of cheating or anything because I know you’re a good lad who cares a lot about his studies and wants to do really well — is that right Danny? — yeah, thought so. So I’m not going to accuse you of cheating or using your notes or Google or whatever, I’m just going to say that the point of the homework is for you to learn the answers, ok? So if you haven’t learnt the answers, then you haven’t really done the homework. Do you understand what I’m saying? Say it back to me please, what’s the point in doing the homework?…
Cool, so next week when I call your mum again and ask you a question from the quiz, are you going to know the answer? Excellent, I look forward to it — I know you can impress me and make me and your mum proud. Mrs Roberts — is all that ok with you? Excellent, thanks. I really appreciate your support. I’ll call you again next week…
The first time I made a call like this, it was pretty brutal. The silence in the middle where I waited for the student to give me an answer that I knew wasn’t coming was excruciating. But it worked. Boy, did it work. I followed up and called again a week later, and, with his mum on the line, Danny gave me a series of absolutely fantastic answers from memory. I spoke about the amazing change and how much better it was this week than last week. I reminded him that doing the quiz properly is the expectation, and next time I call I expect a similar outcome. Good news all around.
Phone calls like this are so much more effective than a detention or just a 1:1 chat with a student. You get to show how much you care. You get to reiterate that you are only giving them a hard time because you (and their parents) know they can do better. If we didn’t do this we would be letting you down. That kind of thing. For that student, it works. And the news spreads; no student wants to receive a call like that. So tell your class about these calls, tell them that you can easily see when someone isn’t doing the work properly. They will get a phone call, and they won’t enjoy it.
Of course, this all only applies to students who you know should know the answers. If you have a class of students who are really struggling and you give them a massive quiz with really difficult questions you’re setting them up to fail and you’re just being mean if you take this approach. But if there is no good reason for this student who did this homework to not know the answer then you are setting them up to fail if you don’t hold them to account. I also make sure that students are adequately warned about stuff like this. It only works if the student is 100% bang to rights and they know it — any kind of reason or justification in their head for not having done the work properly means they will just resent you, rather than rise to your expectations.
Approaches like this are part of building your culture of retrieval. They are tools which you use to increase engagement with retrieval practice. There are many such tools, and they aren’t all quite as punchy as this one. If a student gives a great answer in class, and you talk about how well that student has been doing their flashcards and quizzes, you are improving your culture of retrieval. If you talk to your class about why we do retrieval and what the purpose is, you are improving your culture of retrieval. But if you don’t hold students to account for their performance, then you are allowing bad habits to form, negatively impacting your culture of retrieval.
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