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Sorry, kids: schools need more testing, not less

Students take an SAT prep class in Newton, Massachusetts
“Testing for testing’s sake”? Or a powerful educational tool?
John Nordell/Christian Science Monitor/Getty

In education circles, testing has become the villain of the day. Kids declare exams to be a waste of time while educators argue that the anxiety around tests produces a “toxic environment.” Families loathe exams, too, as I learned when doing some research on assessments, with parents often viewing tests as either a distraction from more important activities or as “testing for testing’s sake.”

But when it comes to learning, it turns out, the best research shows that exams help learning rather than harm it, and most schools and universities actually should be doing more testing, not less of it. A large and growing body of studies indicates that assessments help students learn. More — and better — testing programs can also help teachers teach.

Cutting against the grain of all the negative chatter about tests, some cognitive psychologists, including Yana Weinstein at University of Massachusetts Lowell, have declared themselves to be “champions” of testing.

The catch is that the tests have to be the right kinds of tests. The exams that spark learning typically tend to have lower stakes, they have more open-ended questions, and they are given often enough to provide clear feedback to teachers and students. But if they’re well designed, tests have been proven to help students achieve mastery of the subject material — not just evaluate progress.

To be sure, there are good reasons that tests have a tarnished brand. For years, assessment programs have been weak. Many schools and universities have relied heavily on multiple-choice exams, which often do little to measure (or instill) richer forms of understanding. Up until a few years ago, a few states, including North Carolina, gave English exams that didn't include any writing tasks, which is a bit like administering a driving test without the student ever driving a car.

For many years, testing programs also didn’t provide enough feedback. For instance, final exams often help to determine a student's grade. But that kind of assessment happens too infrequently — and, almost by definition, too late — to provide useful information. The high-stakes nature of such tests is also all but guaranteed to spark unproductive anxiety.

The exams that some students have to pass to get a high school diploma are the epitome of a high-stakes test. Not surprisingly, these exams can cause cheating and stress. Many of these formal, high-stakes exams also take weeks — if not months — to grade. While the exams might make a high school diploma appear more meaningful to colleges and employers, the results typically come far too late to shape what happens in specific classrooms in specific years.

Quizzes provide instant feedback, allowing teachers to fine-tune their lessons

This all stands in stark contrast to the kinds of tests most firmly backed by the evidence. These research-supported exams, of various kinds, do a few different things. First, they can provide frequent checks on student understanding. By using them, educators can fine-tune their lessons to match the learning pace of the students in a classroom.

I saw an instructor take this sort of quiz-based approach to teaching in a large physics class at the University of Maryland College Park. It was the first day after spring break, and the professor, Ben Dreyfus, gave a little quiz about electrical charges. The students responded using hand-held “clickers.” Many students had forgotten the material Dreyfus asked them about, and on a few questions, half the class gave the wrong response.

So Dreyfus spent the rest of the class time reviewing the material, to ensure that they’d absorbed it before moving on to new material that built on that knowledge.

A recent academic article on the use of clicker-based quizzes in large lectures drives home just how useful such temperature-taking can be. One biology instructor quoted in it recalled being amazed that while 90 percent of students recalled a certain rule in genetics, only 48 percent could apply it accurately:

This was a moment of revelation. … for the first time in over 20 years of lecturing I knew… that over half the class didn't ‘get it’…. Because I had already explained the phenomenon as clearly as I could, I simply asked the students to debate briefly with their neighbors and see who could convince whom about which answer was correct. The class erupted into animated conversation. After a few minutes, I asked for a revote, and now over 90 percent gave the correct answer.

How tests teach: the “retrieval practice effect”

Even more exciting, if counterintuitive, low-stakes quizzes and exams do not just test mastery, they help create it. When we're quizzed, the act of attempting to express what we know about a subject helps to solidify our understanding of the subject at hand. Psychologists call this mechanism the “retrieval practice effect,” or, more simply, the “testing effect.” (Students can use a version of this technique by quizzing themselves when studying for bigger tests.)

Researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt, of Purdue University, have shown that quizzing promotes conceptual knowledge more than some other approaches once thought to be promising — like concept mapping, which involves summarizing what you know by graphical means, on paper or a whiteboard, and connecting related ideas with lines and arrows. On its own, it appears, quizzing helps students systematize their ideas and create a rich "structure" of knowledge.

These insights apply to lengthier tests, too — whether in math or English or social studies. As Logan Fiorella of the University of Georgia, and Richard Mayer of the University of California Santa Barbara argue in their book Learning as a Generative Activity, "students will learn more deeply if they are able to effectively select main ideas, organize them, and then restate them in their own words."

In sum, testing “shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work,” writes the University of Washington psychologist Henry L. Roediger III, “but the means by which students progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way.”

Still skeptical about the power of testing in learning? Consider a paper released earlier this year. The authors evaluated more than 250 experiments with more than 10,000 participants, in which students had prepared for exams by either rereading material they’d been exposed to — a classic approach — or being quizzed about it. The researchers found that quizzing sparked far better outcomes than rereading. They concluded: “An overwhelming amount of evidence reviewed in this meta-analysis suggests that [quizzing] increases achievement.”

If you are out of school, you can still make use of these insights. Whenever you’re trying to grasp a new subject, experts recommend that you ask yourself a lot of "why" questions. Yes, the Fed tends to raise interest rates when inflation rises — but why?

There’s been progress on the ground: a shift from bad tests to research-backed exams

In recent years, America's schools have taken some important steps forward when it comes to tests. In K-12 schools, the exams associated with the new Common Core standards are better than previous ones, including a lot more open-ended and essay items.

Policymakers at the state and federal level have also been lowering the stakes on exams. Fewer states use a single exam to determine if a student should get a diploma, for instance. As the result of a new federal education law, states are taking a broader approach to evaluating schools, moving beyond the results of a single test-score to assess school performance.

More and more educators are using "exit slips," a type of end-of-the class quiz to test student knowledge — the K-12 equivalent of those college clicker quizzes.

No doubt, a lot of bad testing still goes on in high-school and college classrooms, and even well-constructed, research-based tests are never going to inspire love letters. But in the end, the proof is in the outcomes, and students who experience more regular quizzing end up posting higher grades on their final exams.

Some students have come to this realization on their own. On the day that I visited Ben Dreyfus's physics classrooms at the University of Maryland, I sat next to a junior named Brandon Fish. As he pressed the buttons to answer Dreyfus’s questions, he was sometimes surprised by what he remembered, or had forgotten. It could be distressing to discover holes in his knowledge, Fish said, but “it’s helpful to know what you don’t know.”

Near the end of our interview, Fish said something that I thought that I’d never hear from a college student, especially from a generation that has supposedly been tested to death. “I like the quizzes,” he said.

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. This article was adapted from his new book, Learn Better.

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