Testing to Teach
Yet another study suggests that testing may be useful not only for evaluation but for learning. An earlier post on LearningDiversity.org pointed out other research that bashed the conventional wisdom about what makes for effective studying, including mention of earlier studies that showed testing yourself is more effective than studying the material by reviewing it. This most recent study actually compared testing to other popular methods of studying including the personal favorite of many educators, concept mapping.
Subjects who read a text and then took a test performed better a week later on retrieval and organization of facts and drawing conclusions from those facts than subjects who used any of the other study methods. The effect seems pretty clear even if the intricate workings of the process are still unknown: when you struggle to retrieve and organize recently acquired information it makes it easier to remember later. Perhaps new cues and pathways are established that are later recognized by our brains.
With the current controversy among educators surrounding the perceived over-use of standardized tests to evaluate student (and teacher) performance we should be careful not to discard this apparently effective means of teaching on the ideological grounds that we don’t need more testing.
The real question for us teachers is how to make the best use of this method in the classroom. Short quizzes could be given immediately after the presentation of new material, and study guides might more often take the form of practice tests. One important point to remember is that the subjects who took tests and performed better conversely did not feel as confident in their knowledge as the subjects who used the other methods. The reason may be that the very struggle to retrieve information that seems to underly better performance feels hard, whereas students who study with the material in front of them feel, “this is easy.”
Therefore, teachers should be prepared to reassure their students, that while the task may seem difficult it will lead to improvement. Educators should also remember that assignments intended as exercises, even in the guise of a test, shouldn’t be treated as high-value assessments.