Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Testing Isn't Just a Box-Ticking Exercise

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Testing Isn't Just a Box-Ticking Exercise

Article excerpt

Popular wisdom says that assessment is stress-inducing and pointless. The evidence says otherwise. Here's how to do it right

Let's begin with a multiple-choice question. Which of the following best describes your definition of the term "test" when applied to education?

a) An out-of-date token of an exam-factory school model that is damaging our students' learning;

b) A blunt tool that is used to clobber teachers at every available opportunity;

c) A vital tool for education;

d) You are too surprised by option c) to give an intelligent response.

Get teachers (or students, or parents for that matter) to answer this question and the answers are likely to be variations on options a) and b). This is because it is seemingly impossible to distinguish the idea of testing from the deep-seated prejudices we have about our high-stakes exam regime.

I would argue, however, that this is exactly what we have to do. Testing doesn't just measure our students; more importantly, it is an effective tool for improving learning.

The benefits of learning through testing are many, even if they seem counter-intuitive at first. For example, rather than leave a test until the end of a topic or scheme of learning, research suggests that we should start with one. It also suggests that we should test more, using regular low-stakes assessments such as quizzes or short questions, to harness memory.

A key text in this area is Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke's 2006 research study Test-enhanced Learning: taking memory tests improves long-term retention (

This describes the positive impact that taking a test has on students' ability to retain information. But research has been coming to similar conclusions for many years. Back in 1917, psychologist Arthur I Gates explained the beneficial impact of testing, or "recitation" as it was termed, on learning (

More recently, Mark McDaniel et al's 2007 paper Generalizing Test-enhanced Learning from the Laboratory to the Classroom ( showed that taking a test on a given topic proved more memorable than simply revising the material.

This evidence should force us all to reconsider the worth of regular low-stakes testing when we are designing a curriculum.

Time for reassessment

First, we need to start with a little rebranding. There is a stark difference between high-stakes exams and low-stakes testing for learning. Testing in this sense could involve students simply being quizzed on taught topics (a "quiz" doesn't sound as daunting as a test). Alternatively, it may involve students having to map out what they know in a visual way without the benefit of their notes. In essence, whichever method you use should draw upon the difficulty of retrieving information from memory but without the strain of a planned exam.

The timing of tests is important, too. As mentioned earlier, taking a test before beginning a topic can be very effective. In their study The Pretesting Effect: do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? (, Lindsey E Richland et al found that even when students bombed on a test before studying the topic, they still learned more effectively in the long term.

The evidence suggests that tests can prime students for learning in a positive way. Getting it wrong can tease out initial misconceptions, or guide students towards the ideas they need to remember when they come to a given topic. …

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