I've been reading John Hattie's book, Visible Learning, in which he ranks the effect sizes of different strategies that help student achievement. One of the strategies that is pretty high on the list is that it is better to give students spaced (or distributed) practice as opposed to mass practice. In other words, rather than having a student practice something over and over again in one day, it is much better to spread that practice out over multiple days or weeks. (You can read one of these studies here.) The main benefit is that spaced practice helps with long-term retention.
While this research certainly gives some justification for providing students with multiple opportunities to revisit older topics, I am left to wonder if this should change how I structure my lessons and assessments. I, like many others, teach by units. My students might spend a month on fractions followed by a test. They then get a month of algebra followed by another test. We, as teachers, create this span of time when all learning about a particular topic must happen. We don't always give students the time to practice these ideas, particularly the more challenging ones that almost always happen at the end of the unit and right before the test.
Based on what I've read about spaced practice, I would propose that teachers shouldn't give tests at the end of a unit. Perhaps students need time to practice these skills over several weeks before you should assess them. This is something I'm going to explore this year with some of the concepts that were challenging for my students last year.
Note: This is probably not an original idea and I'm sure someone else out there has probably explored it. If you have any resources to share on the subject, I'd greatly appreciate it!
Another note: I do allow my students to retake quizzes which I had hoped would send the message that learning doesn't stop after the quiz is taken. However, very few of my students have taken advantage of this in the past. I am hoping to correct that this year with some ideas from Dylan Wiliam, Ashli Black, and others.
Update: Henri Piccioto has written about this and calls it "lagging homework". He also reinforces the idea that quizzing should happen much later then when the material was taught. Thanks to Mary Bourassa and Chris Robinson for helping me find his work!