Teachers: How Much Testing is Too Much?

You May Be Surprised at What the Research Says

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear an educator grumble about “the evils of testing.” You know what I mean: the evil empire of state and national tests that drive staff and kids into stressful zombies who learn only test-taking skills and to dislike school.

Along with, “How’s the weather?” the testing complaints have become the single common denominator in conversations about kids and learning. But what if everything you believed about testing was wrong? What if the actual science behind it was different than what you thought?

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Here’s what the genuine “real deal” research says about our brain, testing and learning.

First of all, let’s be clear about it: there are many, many types of testing. We don’t need to list them all here, but there are as many types of testing as there are types of learning.

The list might include:

1) objective and subjective
2) abstract and concrete
3) deductive and inductive
4) classroom or “on-site” real world
5) recall or constructive knowledge
6) priming quality or in-depth knowledge and
7) etc.

In short, one must be very, very careful about generalizing the results of one type of testing to ALL types of testing.

So, given these variables, what does the research say?

Here are 3 powerful “take-home” messages on one type of learning: text learning.

SURPRISE #1: Repeated testing enhances learning more than repeated studying. This study used 177 college students and asked them (1) to list strategies they used when studying (an open-ended free report question) and (2) to choose whether they would reread or practice recall after studying a textbook chapter (a forced report question). The results of both questions point to the same conclusion: many students experience illusions of competence while studying and that these illusions have significant consequences for the strategies students select when they monitor and regulate their own learning (Karpicke, et al. 2009).

SURPRISE #2: We’ve just learned that MORE testing is BETTER than more studying. But what happens when students simply don’t know the test question? Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts help or impede future learning? A recent study suggests that unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhanced learning. One might suggest that the process of taking challenging tests (instead of avoiding errors) will support learning (Richland, et al. 2009).

SURPRISE #3: So far, we’ve learned that testing is better than studying. We saw that unsuccessful testing is a good thing for learning. In this third study, the authors examined the effect of unsuccessful retrieval attempts on learning in 5 different studying and testing conditions. Students were given an essay and then were asked questions (pretesting) vs. given key concepts (priming knowledge) about embedded concepts BOTH before and after reading the passage. Results showed that post-test performance was better after the pre-test condition than in the extended study condition in all experiments. This result confirmed and expanded on the other two studies (Kornell, et al. 2009).

This sounds brutal. The science says that MORE, not less, testing is better.

One way to interpret these studies is to throw your arms up and say, “I can’t do it!” Another way to interpret these is to say, “Of course! I’ve always thought that getting and giving feedback was valuable. Now, I’ll just need to remember to include my students more often in this process so it’s not more work for me.”

For the moment, I won’t go on a big diatribe about the national and state testing (I’ve said elsewhere that it does not reflect what students have learned in other, more important areas, or what they really need to learn for their developmental stage, the real world or their brain).

Ready for your answer to, “What do I do on Monday?”

Here’s what this research suggests for you. First, pre-testing is a good idea. Starting about fourth grade, kids can pretest other kids with little work on your part. They can use partners with texts, watch DVDs, create Qs or you can use Qs from the “end of the unit exams” that you have already made up.

Second, do not “gloss over” the mistakes. Do not pretend they are minor or didn’t happen. Let students know that the information will be on later tests and it is important to know.

When a student does poorly on a question, it’s completely okay to show disappointment (or sadness) in your voice or body language. Just 3-5 seconds of the emotion will tell the student’s brain that they let you down and that doing poorly is not a good thing. But, do not dwell on this! After a few seconds (just enough to “lock in” the emotion in their brain), move on. Change your tone, your body language and get positive. Say, “Well, we know what to work on and you’ve shown you can put in the effort, so I’m looking forward to good things. Let’s get going!”

Finally, get students involved much more in the feedback/testing process. By the time they are ten years old, they are ready to give quality feedback. Make it task specific (about the answer, not the person), make it content specific (“Capitalize these words but NOT those types”) and always acknowledge effort, not so called-talent. Do NOT say, “I know you can do better. You’re a smart kid. You’ve got the brains to do well.” Say, “I love how much you worked on that. Your good effort will pay off. Keep at it.”

Why? Effort is a much stronger determiner of success than the supposed “natural talent.” Want to know why? Read, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain.

Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun!

Karpicke, JD, Butler AC, Roediger, HL 3rd. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory. 2009 May;17(4):471-9

Richland LE, Kornell N, Kao LS. The pretesting effect: do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? J Exp Psychol Appl. 2009 Sep;15(3):243-57

Kornell, N, Hays MJ, Bjork, RA. Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2009 Jul;35(4):989-98

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nate Kay

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