Teaching with cloze tasks and spaced repetition

Ebbinghaus’s lessons – 130 years later computers make them easier to apply

Guest post by Mark Souter, psychology and sociology teacher

Lesson 1: The rule of five

Decades before the sub-discipline of cognitive psychology was named as such, Ebbinghaus demonstrated some of the essential aspects of memory. One of his most important findings was the ‘rule of five’. For a distinct item to become more or less fixed in memory it needs to be learnt on five occasions (there is a second aspect of this rule, which I will return to later).

This is not to say that something cannot be recalled with less exposure – world champions can memorise the sequence of 10 decks of cards within 20 minutes. Ebbinghous tested his recall of lists of ‘trigrams’, deliberately meaningless three letter combinations of consonant-vowel-consonant. Ebbinghaus found that each time he tested his recollection of a list of trigrams the proportion that he could recall increased at an accelerating rate until it reached 100% after five occasions (figure X).

Figure 1 – The Forgetting Curve: Repetitions (source)

This was not a futile abstraction; he established a good scientific procedure by isolating what he recognised was an important component of memory: the association of meanings. Clearly, learning by linking ideas is an essential and powerful part of learning (it is at the core of Vygotsky’s ZPD). What Ebbinghaus discovered remains important for teachers, especially those of us dealing with prescriptive curricula.

Whether prescriptive curricula are a good idea is a debate for another occasion. As it is I need to ensure that my students accumulate knowledge and understanding of a range of novel terms within less than nine months. This learning can (and needs to) take place within a meaningful context – the application of these concepts to everyday life, exceptional contexts, and within studies in social science. Even so, Ebbinghaus’s research helps to explain the ‘Chinese learner paradox and shows that abstracted learning has a powerful role to play in education. Regular repetition helps to establish both recall and understanding. Furthermore, regularly identifying and correcting what will be a reducing number of errors, can help our students to master a large number of concepts relatively rapidly.

Lesson 2: Spaced learning and the forgetting curve

There is a second pay off in Ebbinghaus’s discovery. The distance between each repeated episode of learning is more effective when it is spaced at increasing intervals. When it comes to some learning tasks it helps to leave an increasing gap between episodes. After the first exposure to the list of trigrams he found that the number of items he could recall would quickly fall off. Typically, he would forget about 50% of the items, though this would fall much further after two days. Each day’s delay caused a further fall, which described a more or less consistent pattern: the forgetting curve.

Figure 2: increasing time intervals and the forgetting curve (source)

He found a further pattern. When he reviewed and relearned the list the next day after first learning it, the next time he tested himself his recall was much more effective, he could recall 60-70%, even after more than 24 hours. Each time he re-learned the list he remembered a great proportion for a longer period of time. After five occasions he found he could recall the whole list of meaningless trigrams. This spaced repetition forms the basis for an effective learning strategy based on flash cards. A refinement is to sort the cards at the second learning sessions so that the cards that were not recalled are prioritized. Cloze tasks do something which is essentially similar to card sorting, but which raises the level of learning. Cloze tasks provide the chance for repetition in the context of full sentences and paragraphs. I am not going to argue for one or the other – the obvious thing would be to use both.

Spaced repetition – that’s what computers are good at…

This is just the sort of testing and organizing that computers are good at. Flash card exercises can all be done with physical cards and little boxes, cloze could be done with Tipex and a photocopier, but these are time consuming to make and replicate. Computers not only take the hassle out of tracking and sorting, they also take the hassle out of making and storing the cards. The same is true of cloze tasks.

… and this is what Learnclick is good at

A simple word-processing trick makes them easy to make and replicate (I’ll save that gem for another day) but with even less effort Learnclick can be used to generate a web page version; and (for lesson start ‘settlers’ and plenaries) illustrated hard copy versions. Online cloze tasks can also embed web links. I use these to a neat in-class or homework package: the student uses the link, reads the source, then completes the cloze.

At this point the practical advantages of online materials for the teacher become clear. I can just cut-and-paste a source; briskly write my own or (my favourite) give the students a list of key words that must be included plus a word count limit and get them to draft a ‘student friendly’ version – and learn for themselves as they create it. If an existing source selected rather than copied wholesale, and if due credit is given, and you do not charge anyone to use it, you should be safe from copyright issues in most jurisdictions. It would be safest (and polite!) to seek the approval of the publisher. I think it is likely that they will be more than happy, especially if their site uses ad revenue, since you will be steering traffic their way.

For the creation of the Learnclick cloze I had been using drag-and-drop, which is easy to generate. The disadvantage is that if you select more than three or four words the student has a lot of selecting to do, pushing the student into a large ZPD with little scaffolding. Drop down menus reduce the scope, but could add to the teacher’s burden in making distractor items (foils to the correct answer). This is where Learnclick’s new auto-drop down generator comes in. It intelligently selects words from the text.

This is a genius level feature: not only does it make it much quicker, but it also has a pedagogic bonus. The student is constantly reminded of other relevant terms, whilst being forced to deep-level process the meanings of the foil terms too. Of course, if they recognise the correct term straight away, the processing of the foils will not be as deep, but then they will have learned the essential term and move quickly on to the next. If they struggle a little more their learning will be of necessity more profound, and all the more effective for that. It is just as quick as making a cloze with drag-and-drop, but it is pedagogically more sound, and it works better on smaller and touch-screen devices.

I’ll save the topics of ‘learned industriousness’ and ‘deep level processing’ for a future occasion! For now, I’ll sign off with the suggestion that you should try this out. Here are two example on the topic of learned helplessness to try out. One has answers that I created, the second has automatically generated examples.

Generating my own answers allows me to make points (for example put ideas about other this or studies as distractor items to reinforce recall of those topics). Automatically generated answers save time; they also make the task easier (i.e. stronger scaffolding for a new topic or for a struggling student); the distractor items are all from the other questions, which is another reinforce. The importance of this last point relates to ‘deep level processing’ (which does not have to be very deep!)

Note the ‘generate a pdf’ button on the top right (only appears for quiz creators). This is what I use to create paper based versions for classroom use.

Meaningful rote learning and the ‘Chinese Learner Paradox’

Guest post by Mark Souter, psychology and sociology teacher

There is good research evidence to show that systematic drills, such as those provided by Learnclick, can enhance learning. This claim challenges some of the assumptions about learning taught in Western pedagogy. I am convinced these assumptions are wrong …

Conventional wisdom in British pedagogy (and much of the ‘West’) is that rote learning is empty of meaning and unhelpful. The paradox is that this is exactly the approach of the most successful cultural group in education. British school children’s test data are thoroughly (excessively in some ways) tracked by the state. One of the beneficial outcomes is that differences between social groups can be identified, though explaining differences is not as straightforward.

In Britain, the most striking and persistent difference in achievement is that between socio-economic classes, followed by that between ethnic groups and then by gender (ONS, 2015). In my setting, the first difference is of most direct importance since I teach in a school which encompasses the most deprived area of the UK. One of the subjects I teach is sociology and the persistent and striking success of students of Chinese heritage intrigued me – not, alas my students who never asked me to explain this phenomenon, nonetheless, I wanted to know! The international evidence is consistent and it is striking that despite the fact that the label ‘Chinese’ encompasses well over 1 billion people, academic success in this group is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK detailed research shows that the difference is deeply culturally embedded since it is consistent across those who have been settled in the UK for many generations as compared to new arrivals, and across socio-economic classes. This last aspect is striking in the context of the UK. Among those of ‘white British’ heritage the difference in GCSE exams (a public exam taken in Year 11, at 15-16 years old) between the national mean and those poor enough to be entitled to free school meals is 30 percentage points. Among students of Chinese heritage it was too small to measure accurately (HoCEC, 2015). Their gender gap is also the smallest of any ethnic group (Connolly, 2006).

Such is the healthy state of British social science that detailed research has been carried out on possible causes of this difference. In particular, Woodrow and Sham (2001) sought the views of students of Chinese heritage. For those interested in the methodological details there is a reference at the end of this article; here I am going pick out what I think are the implications for learning in general. Firstly, learning is revered. Parents and teachers, in particular, are also held in high esteem (though, reading between the lines of their responses, I suspect this is despite some disappointment!) The students value subjects which the see as contributing to future economic success; being told what is important for forthcoming tests; and teacher directed learning in general. They do not value discursive learning methods such as group work. There is a widespread commitment to study between lessons and to correct errors. In short students of Chinese heritage are almost invariably relentless in their pursuit of knowledge.

It seems entirely unreasonable to assume that the academic performance shown by these students happens in spite of their labours. Although they tend to have a marked preference for vocationally relevant learning they excel across all subjects, and on into undergraduate and post-graduate study, so this attitude to learning does not let them down when the knowledge they cram needs to be used at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (in its post-2002 or ‘classic’ form). The ‘paradox’ of the power of supposedly ‘empty rote learning’ has been accounted for by rejecting the core assumption that such learning is empty. There is good evidence that empty learning is possible, as demonstrated by one of my heroes of psychology, Ebbinghaus. I will expand on his virtues in another post. I’ll just say here that he isolated meaning from his studies for the purpose of scientific rigour, not because meaning it unimportant to memory – on the contrary, he was acknowledging its power through his realisation that the powerful role of prior learning was a variable that needed to be controlled.

Equally, it is possible to memorise otherwise important data in a meaningless fashion – al la Mr. Gradgrind (and my French teacher, for whom I learned “me, te, se, nous, vous, le, la, les, lui, leur, y, en”. To this day, some 40 years later, I remain totally ignorant of its significance – though it did save me from finding out whether he would follow through on his threat involving the sharp half of a snooker cue). The point here is that knowledge and understanding are not independent phenomena. Piaget has been caricatured as saying understanding comes before language – ideas have to be learned first and independently before the words that refer to them. In fact, Piaget acknowledged the importance of social context and language in development (Becker and Varelas, 2001). In this respect, his differences with Vygotsky have been exaggerated. For teachers the central point is clear – language can scaffold learning; ideas do not have to precede words, they word together. Presenting our students with drills that focus on the use of key language is not empty learning.

Some of the other findings about Chinese learners relate to the influence of parents in respect to completing homework and other studies at home. This echoes the ‘Tiger Mom’ phenomenon in less academic sources. When I raise the topic of Chinese learners at presentations in the UK other teachers often express concerns about the work-life balance for students, and even suggest that this can have negative effects on their mental health. I am going to side step this issue here because – as has been pointed out in other research – 5,000 years of Chinese culture is not going to be simply transferred wholesale into the lives of occidental students. For my classroom teaching the issue is more straightforward: what aspects of the Chinese learning phenomenon can be transferred?

Much as I would like automatic reverence from my students I think I have to accept that this is going to remain hard-earned. I also doubt that my charges will readily adapt correcting their errors or a relentless attitude to study – but this is something I can facilitate with some technological support. The acquisition of new knowledge is especially important in my subject area (social science) since it is not part of the UK National Curriculum. At 16 years old they leave the straight jacket of the National Curriculum and can choose from a much wider array of subjects. Psychology and sociology bring with them a very large, new vocabulary, just as the level of cognitive demands in general takes a large step upwards. It has been difficult to convince students of the need to up their game.

It is hard to add wisdom on top of all the other things I have to teach; all the more so, when teaching adolescents. Sometimes it takes most of two years to do this, which is a shame because the final exam comes just weeks later. It made me feel a little better to hear a student say ‘you were right; I wish I’d taken you seriously at the time, sir’, but it was something of a pyrrhic victory. My conviction that information technology could contribute was not immediately matched by my attempts at implementation. The main problem was that the effect of IT was not tested since it was initially only those students who would study anyway that took up. What I have been focussing on in the last few years has been finding electronic learning systems that do not impose their own extra demands on students, and ones that lift burdens from teachers. There are a lot of card-sort systems (Quizlets is my favourite), but when it comes to cloze learning I’ve found nothing that matches Learnclick.

Becker, J. and Varelas, M., 2001. Piaget’s early theory of the role of language in intellectual development: A comment on DeVries’s account of Piaget’s social theory. Educational researcher, 30(6), pp.22-23.
Bhattacharyya, G., Ison, L. and Blair, M., 2003. Minority ethnic attainment and participation in education and training: the evidence. Nottingham: DfES Publications.
Connolly, P., 2006. The effects of social class and ethnicity on gender differences in GCSE attainment: a secondary analysis of the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997–2001. British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), pp.3-21.
House of Commons Education Committee, 2014. Underachievement in education by white working class children. House of Commons, 142.
Woodrow, D. and Sham, S., 2001. Chinese pupils and their learning preferences. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 4(4), pp.377-394

Tools I use for teaching English online

Guest post by Marina Petrovic, Online English and Serbian teacher

I’ve been teaching languages online since 2008. You may imagine that I have tried out a myriad of different tools since my first online lesson! However, in time I learnt to stick to the ones which are extremely simple to use and to which my students respond best. So far these have been the following platforms and tools:

For synchronous teaching:

  • Skype/FB
    After working with various virtual classrooms for years, starting with ancient DimDim and then pricey AdobeConnect and popular WizIQ, I ended up using Vyew. Its uniqueness dazzled me, until dozens of my virtual classrooms and years of course creation disappeared overnight. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time, effort and money while Skype and Google doc have always been there for me: the most reliable ones and free!

For synchronous and asynchronous teaching:

  • Google documents
    Of course, Skype along with Google doc! Another great tool that has patiently been waiting for me to discover it! It allows both you and your students to follow the changes to the document in the real time. There is also a chat available along with other addons.<
    Once the lesson is over, my students do their homework when they have time, add it in the form of a comment and I get an instant notification into my Gmail inbox. I reply to them instantly and this allows a continuous flow. How cool is that!

For asynchronous teaching:

    • Blogger and Facebook page for sharing content
      Blogger is the simplest form of blog I would advise teachers to use. It looks neat and trendy, and yet you needn’t worry about many technical details, especially in comparison to WordPress. There is nothing to install, nor to update. My free blog on blogger.com platform has more than 80k unique visitors a month. I keep sharing the numerous posts I create there through Facebook and Twitter as well. Many of my online students get in touch with me for the first time through my FB page or comments on the blog.
    • Youtube for publishing my videos
      Fifty percent of the traffic I attract to my website comes from my Youtube videos. They are embedded into my own posts. That is why I managed to create a kind of a LMS with my blog and Youtube. I simply add a link into my Youtube video lesson which leads to a language quiz which is based on my video lesson. Most of my students tell me they feel happy to be able to use platforms such as  Youtube, Facebook and Blogger to do the tasks  and listen to my video lessons. There is nothing complicated about that!
    • Embeddable quizzes for practicing various language skills.
      Let me explain to you how you can add  a quiz to your blog and change it within minutes!

      As you have seen here, the most important steps are as follows:

      1. Logging into your Learnclick account
      2. Naming your quiz
      3. Adding a category
      4. Deciding on the number of attempts and quiz timing
      5. Adding a text
      6. Creating gaps
      7. Making your quiz visible to everyone
      8. Saving the quiz
      9. Clicking “show quiz” in order to check what it looks like and if everything is correct
      10. Clicking on “change”, next to Visible to in order to get an embed code
      11. Grabbing the embed code
      12. Pasting the code into your blog or website

      It’s that simple!

  • Padlet for writing exercises
    This is another fun tool which proved to be reliable and attractive to my students. They easily access a Padlet page with my video lesson, click twice and write whatever I instruct them to practice. I guess it is also fun for them to see that there has been a continuous flow of messages for a few years. Students of various ages and backgrounds from the whole region of ex-Yu have been learning together –  check it out on this padlet.
  • Vocaroo.com for speaking exercises
    The quickest way to leave a message for someone and relax knowing that it will be erased in a month or so. No need to sign up, sign in – just allow the platform to use your mic, record the speaking task and send your teacher the link. My students keep sending me their speaking exercises though their own Google docs or FB messages. I listen to them and reply within a day. This is an indispensable tool for all language teachers out there!

I hope you enjoyed learning how I perfected my online teaching in years while downsizing the number of tools and platforms. In the course of the last year I made my dream come true and switched to teaching online completely. Of course, more than twenty years of F2F teaching helped a great deal 😉

I would like to invite you to share your online teaching experiences, your blogs and your favourite tools! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below.

Import and Export Quiz Questions

You can now import questions into Learnclick or export Learnclick quizzes. We use the Moodle XML format. See documentation.

import / export quiz questions

We chose the Moodle XML format because it’s well-documented and works well with our quizzes. And it has the advantage that there already exist a number of converters with which you can convert your questions to Moodle XML.

Exporting your quiz questions does not only serve as a way to backup your questions, but it can be also used if you want to reuse some quiz questions you created in another quiz. You can check which questions you want to export and then you can import those into your new quiz (where you can re-order them).

How to import Moodle Quizzes into WordPress

So you created many quizzes inside Moodle and would now like to use them in your WordPress blog? The solution I’m giving you here won’t actually import the quizzes into WordPress, but into learnclick.com and you can then embed them using an iframe (note that this solution only works if you’re self-hosting your blog, not on wordpress.com as they don’t allow iframes).

  1. Export your questions in Moodle: https://docs.moodle.org/22/en/Export_questions
    Make sure you choose the file format “Moodle XML format”.
  2. In Learnclick click on “Create a Quiz” and then choose Import Questions.
  3. Follow the instructions for embedding your quiz into WordPress. You will need to install the iFrame plugin. When pasting the iframe code into your WordPress code you will need to change the angle brackets <> into square brackets [ ].

With Learnclick you can also create usernames and have the answers recorded.

An alternative to Zondle?

Zondle was a great website for creating classroom games and assessments. Sadly, as it often happens with free products, they closed down.

If your’re looking for an alternative, we suggest you give www.learnclick.com a chance. Learnclick has many different types of quiz questions,  you will especially like the option to add drag & drop questions (see an example quiz). To make your quizzes more interesting, add images, audio and videos (see our help on multimedia). The best part are the detailed reports you get for assessments.


Learnclick offers an option to import questions and soon you will be able to export questions too.

To try it out, go to learnclick.com and login with the following credentials:

Username: demo
Password: demo

How to create a Cloze Dictation Quiz

Cloze dictation quizzes are great for learning languages in context. In this article I will explain to you how this can be done with learnclick.com.

  • I click on “Create a Quiz” and then choose the first option “Blank Boxes & Dropdowns” from the dropdown list and click “Add Question”.
  • Then I paste my text into the Learnclick textbox. For the words or short phrases I want to learn I mark them and click on “Create Gap” .

The examples for this quiz are in Korean. I added the English translations.

Korean article

“Talk to me in Korean” has the above article also available as a video on Youtube. I only want to include the audio into my quiz, so I copy the Youtube vIdeo URL and head to convert2mp3.net to convert the video into an mp3-file (you can find the Youtube link when you click on “Share” below the Youtube video).

  • Above the quiz text-field I click on the icon to add a a multimedia element:
  • I choose the type “audio” and click on the symbol next to text-field for File/URL to upload my mp3 file.
    upload audio
  • After clicking on the button “Create” in the multimedia dialog, it will insert the audio file inside our textbox. In the edit mode it will only display a yellow box. You will get to see the actual audio controls once you display the quiz.
  • This is how my dictation quiz displays after I click on the button “Show Quiz”:

This is a dictation quiz one of our users created: https://www.learnclick.com/quiz/show/16238

Why our clients are using learnclick.com…

A few months ago we asked some of our clients the following question(s): “What makes learnclick.com unique? Why did you choose our product?” We thought you might find the answers useful for deciding if learnclick.com is something you could use:

  • Real customer service
    The reporting is key to formative assessments and reteaching
    The help pages are actually useful

  • It has lots of functions – all that I need, it’s constantly updated, quizzes can be embedded into my site, I can see statistics.

  • I can create different types of quizzes.
    I can add explanations to each answer.
    I can create PDF from my quiz and give it to students during classes.

  • am a teacher of special needs young adults and created our own curriculum for our program. Your program allowed me to customize assessments and assignments with the added feature of scoring them and keeping the data for me.  This has been absolutely huge for us and for me personally.
    I love the fact that I can customize work for our students, the program is user friendly, and the support has been great as well.

  • I give my students a lot of assessments at the beginning of each year, and this really streamlines the process so I don’t have to grade them all by hand.

  • It is the easiest way to make a fill in the blank activity online

  • Because of the simple creation of drag and drop exercises

  • I wanted to find a way to give vocabulary quizzes with drag and drop.

Why create Online Quizzes?

Quizzes help teachers to assess if what they instructed has been understood by their students. The advantages of creating quizzes online are many:

1) The answers get stored online. The teacher can immediately see which students completed the quiz. Teachers do not lose time in going around the classroom physically checking in homework.

2) Teachers can quickly compare the given answers and see in what areas students are successful and in what areas they have demonstrated learning gaps.

3) It saves time grading and the student can immediately see if his answer was correct or not. One can also add an explanation to the quiz question which appears after the student answered the question.

4) Students can retake a practice quiz as often as they want and can see if they improved their score.

5) One can add images, sound and videos to an online quiz and of course save paper.

For doing all this, learnclick.com provides an easy to use, yet powerful quiz creator. Its strength comes into play when creating fill in the gap quizzes. There are several gap-filling options: a simple blank field, a dropdown menu or by using drag & drop boxes. Of course you can also add multiple choice or essay questions. The given answers can be compared very quickly with Learnclick’s statistics and grades feature.

Creating Quizzes in Arabic (making left-to-right work)

We’ve heard from many people that they are facing the problem with many quiz creators that they can’t do right-to-left quiz questions. Learnclick solves this now. We added the symbol right-to-left:


This works for gap-filling questions, as well as drag & drop, dropdowns, etc.


If something doesn’t work as expected, please let us know. We’d be happy to improve this or help you.