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Test To Learn: Why Your Classroom Needs More Tests

In recent years, testing has been a hotly debated topic within the education community: with policy makers, teachers and even parents sometimes working themselves into a furor. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act started the age of high-stakes testing, which was continued by Obama’s Race to the Top.

There are countless criticisms of such testing: the tests might not be accurate assessments of what the students know; the test puts all emphasis on a few skills but very little on creativity or teamwork; the tests benefit the wealthy and punish the poor; tying funding to difficult tests can incentivize cheating.

This topic has been well argued in the Op-Ed columns across America by people far more notable and knowledgable than I.

All of this test-mania has led some teachers to shy away from the T-word entirely, seeing tests and quizzes as a necessary evil.

But what if I told you that testing a certain way will not only serve as assessment, but will reinforce your instruction?

It turns out frequent quizzing might be a student’s best friend.

In the insightful and research-based book, Make It Stick, the authors lay out the best methods for learning and studying. What the research says is best is probably not the way you studied for your tests in school.

The Status Quo

If you’re anything like me, you were taught to highlight as you read, review the book a couple times the night before the test, then come in and take the test.

Pretty standard, right?

Turns out that rereading and cramming the night before are far from the best techniques for learning. In fact, study habits like these are the reason so many students might pass the test but not remember any of the material weeks later.

Rereading and cramming put the information into short-term memory, but learning this way rarely gets the information consolidated into long-term memory.

Can we really call it ‘learning’ if it isn’t retained beyond a couple of weeks, let alone a month or a year?

Compare the act of learning to stocking a kitchen pantry. What good are all of those ingredients if you are unable to find them? You need to be able to take them out and mix them with other ingredients to create wonderful and elaborate meals. Can you really say that you have flour if you can never find it when you need to use it?

Learning needs to be accompanied with retrieving and utilizing the knowledge we acquire. If you know something but can’t access it, then you don’t really know it. If you know something but can’t use it for anything, well we generally call that “trivia.”

There’s a Better Way

To many teachers and students, testing is solely for assessing knowledge, not part of the learning process.

This outlook misses out on one of the biggest benefits to testing: the testing effect. The testing effect tells us that long-term memory will improve if some part of the study time is spent retrieving the information.

In scientific study after study, testing has proven to be the best way to lock in information compared to other forms of educational review.

Give it Time

Compared to cramming and rereading, the payoff from the testing effect isn’t seen as rapidly. It’s the long term where the testing effect really shines, and students who are periodically tested perform much better after a month compared to students who only reread the information.

Don’t Trust Confidence

You’ll feel more confident after rereading the same information over and over, compared to struggling through a difficult quiz, but this does not translate into learning. Don’t confuse familiarity for memorization or mastery of a topic. Rereading gives you the information again and creates the illusion that you already know the material. The effort put into retrieving the information in your mind helps you learn it much better than rereading or highlighting does.

Quizzing Best Practices

Here are some ways to make frequent quizzes most effective for you and your students. Your quizzes should be:

1. Short

No one is going to enjoy taking (or grading) long, arduous quizzes. Keep them short so that they don’t elicit groans from the students every time they’re given. Plus, you don’t want them cutting too deeply into further instruction time.

2. Low Stakes

The quizzes can either be solely for practice or worth a few points. Practice quizzes are fine, but I prefer many small grades so that the ‘big test’ isn’t so influential on their report cards.

3. Expected/Predictable

No one likes pop quizzes, and infrequent quizzing won’t benefit students’ learning as well. Plus you don’t want to make your students nervous when taking quizzes or tests. I’m sure you can remember the drop in your stomach when you heard your teacher announce, “pop quiz!” Don’t associate dread with testing and your students will perform better.

4. Fill in the Blank

Multiple Choice quizzes aren’t as useful for learning, as they ‘help’ the student by cueing them with the answer; students only need to be able to recognize a concept. Fill in the blank or short answer are preferred for these types of quizzes. Make the students dig up the answer with a bit of effort and they’ll remember it better.

5. Closed vs. Open Book

Depending on what you want students to practice, you need to consider a closed or open book policy.
If you are testing for facts or concepts, then keep the books closed, as the effort of recall will provide stronger learning than the effort of recognition as they find the answer in the text. If you want students to develop critical thinking skills, an open book might be more effective as students look back to answers to build upon them, engaging in higher-order thinking.

6. Followed by Feedback

Make sure you provide feedback to the quizzes shortly after, as that is the best way for children to calibrate their understanding of the topic. If too much time passes they won’t learn from their mistakes as they’ll hardly know they’ve made them.

Work With What You Have

If your curriculum has study guides that provide a summarized description of the facts, two minutes with white-out can improve the efficacy of the guide for your students.

Use the cloze deletion method and turn; “We make an inference by using our prior knowledge and the text,” into, “We make an inference by using ______ and ______.” Or you can cloze delete only one of the terms, depending on how well your students know the material. Either way, you’ve made them actively interact with the content, rather than passively rereading.

This will not only improve their scores on tomorrow’s test, but will allow them to better recall the information months down the line.

Don’t Make the Quizzes Too Easy

Easy success on the quizzes is not the goal. As long as you’re having students mentally work to create connections, even attempts that fail, they will learn the material better in the end for having had the attempt. More effort expended during retrieval practice makes for stronger learning.

By the same token, don’t make the quizzes impossible. The retrieval effort hypothesis says, ”difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals.”

Make sure students have a growth mindset so that wrong answers and failed quizzes won’t be seen as defeats, but as solid practice and helpful indicators of what they need to brush up on.

Bring Students Into the Conversation

Be open with your students about why you’re quizzing frequently. Explain to them how testing makes them learn the material better and they’ll respect the process. I know this was never explained to me as a kid and I never understood my teachers’ obsessions with quizzes.

Teach your students how to use retrieval study tools like flash cards. I’ve seen flash cards used as young as 2nd grade, and they’re an inexpensive, versatile and effective method to make learning ‘stick.’

For Students

If you’re a student, or just someone who is trying to learn something, here’s your takeaway: test yourself early and often. Make flashcards for terms and concepts, and don’t toss them away the first time you get the answer right. The answers might feel familiar because of your short-term knowledge and you have yet to lock it into long-term memory.

If you’re reading through a book, periodically stop and ask yourself what you’ve read, rather than rereading. Ask yourself what the key ideas are, and try to connect them to what you already know, strengthening your current and previous learning.

However, if you’re reading this at 1AM and you have a big test tomorrow, skip the retrieval practice and go ahead and cram. You need the short-term benefit that cramming provides, but don’t expect to remember much a month from now.

Make It Stick

I highly recommend reading Make It Stick. It’s a thorough read for anyone wanting to learn more about how we learn and retain information. After reading it, I created flash cards so I can test myself and better retain all that I’ve learned from the book. I couldn’t reread a book that explains how ineffective rereading is, could I?

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Testing Effect

My favorite self-testing method is free and fantastic: Anki

Alexander Trost

Alexander Trost

A 2nd Grade Teacher turned programmer. I solve problems and automate tasks with code so teachers can focus more on the kids and less on the rest.

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