By Jessica Lahey
January 21, 2014
When done right, frequent testing helps people remember information longer.
Testing is terrible for learning, destroys student and teacher morale, and impedes opportunities for productive, meaningful teaching. This oft-repeated axiom has become accepted as true without proof. Opposition to testing and all its associated ills has led to an over-generalization of the word “test” and an unwarranted reputation as the embodiment of all that is wrong with American education.
One researcher believes we are throwing a very effective learning tool out with our educational bathwater, and asserts that we should be testing students more, not less.
“Taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect on future retention of that material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material.”
Henry L. Roediger III, a cognitive psychologist at Washington University, studies how the brain stores, and later retrieves, memories. He compared the test results of students who used common study methods—such as re-reading material, highlighting, reviewing and writing notes, outlining material and attending study groups—with the results from students who were repeatedly tested on the same material. When he compared the results, Roediger found, “Taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect on future retention of that material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material.”
Remarkably, this remains true “even when performance on the test is far from perfect and no feedback is given on missed information.”
Researchers have long known about the “testing effect,” the phenomenon of improved performance through testing. William James, psychology professor at Harvard and author of The Principles of Psychology wrote in 1890,
"A curious peculiarity of our memory is that things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition. I mean that in learning (by heart, for example), when we almost know the piece, it pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again. If we recover the words in the former way, we shall probably know them the next time; if in the latter way, we shall very likely need the book once more."
In other words, students who want to memorize information should attempt to retrieve that information from their own memories, rather than review the material over and over from notes or a text.
This is, at their essence, what tests are intended to do. Tests ask students to look into their wells of knowledge, locate information, and express that knowledge on the page.
Not all tests, however, are created equal. Some tests are more effective in eliciting this positive effect than others. Many tests, including standardized tests, SATs and IQ tests, are designed to measure developed knowledge or abilities. They are “static,” and “summative,” in that they measure students’ sum total knowledge or ability at a fixed point in time. Summative tests do not allow for instructor input during the test and are not intended to shape future teaching. Therefore, no learning takes place during or as a result of the test. Complaints that excessive testing detracts from learning tend to be aimed at summative testing. As summative tests do not teach, and classroom hours spent engaged in summative assessments detract from hours a teacher has to educate her students, those complaints are probably well-founded.
“Formative assessments,” on the other hand, are designed to discover what students do and do not know in order to shape teaching during and after the test. Formative assessments are not meant to simply measure knowledge, but to expose gaps in knowledge at the time of the assessment so teachers may adjust future instruction accordingly. At the same time, students are alerted to these gaps, which allows them to shape their own efforts to learn the information they missed.
Roediger asserts that educators should be using formative assessments early and often in the classroom to strengthen learning during the unit rather than waiting until the end and giving a summative assessment. These repeated assessments curb the most ineffective type of learning, in which students wait until just before the test and then attempt to cram the material in over a short period of time. Research shows that cramming works in the short term, allowing students to regurgitate the information for an exam the next day, but it is a terrible strategy for ensuring long-term storage. Knowledge learned through cramming is less durable over time.
Another drawback to standardized testing is that it is rare, high-pressure, and high-stakes, for both teachers and students. Because standardized test scores results can dictate the fate of a school, a teacher’s employment or a student’s educational future, they are very stressful for all involved. Temptation to cheat can be high, particularly for teachers who know their jobs are at stake.
“Continuous testing requires students to continuously engage themselves in a course; they cannot coast until near a midterm exam and a final exam and begin studying only then.”
Formative testing at its best is low-stakes and high-frequency. When students are used to the practice of being tested (or “quizzed,” if that term carries less baggage) it loses its emotional teeth and its utility as an educational tool begins to emerge. When teachers expose students to frequent low-stakes tests in order to reveal gaps and foster active, continuous engagement in the material, students are given more ownership and power over their education. In Roediger’s words, “Continuous testing requires students to continuously engage themselves in a course; they cannot coast until near a midterm exam and a final exam and begin studying only then.”
Continuous formative testing promotes the cognitive processes that have been shown to maximize long-term retention and retrieval. Frequent testing “not only measures knowledge, but changes it, often greatly improving retention of the tested knowledge,” says Roediger. Information that is tested repeatedly is learned more fully, and remains encoded in memory for a longer period of time. Students with better memory retention will have more ready access to that information as they learn new information and mature as thinkers, making connections over time and across subjects. Students who cram for short-term regurgitation on a summative exam, however, will have long since forgotten their hard-earned knowledge, and lose out on the opportunity to draw analogies and connections across disciplines.
Roediger, in a presentation to the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching Symposium in 2012, presented ten benefits to testing and their applications to educational practice.
- Testing aids later retention.
- Testing identifies gaps in knowledge.
- Testing causes students to learn more from the next learning episode.
- Testing produces better organization of knowledge.
- Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new concepts.
- Testing can facilitate retrieval of information that was not tested.
- Testing improves metacognitive monitoring.
- Testing prevents interference from prior material when learning new material.
- Testing provides feedback to instructors.
- Frequent testing encourages students to study.
It takes time for a teacher to repeatedly assess, adjust future teaching for knowledge gaps, and assess again. Roediger acknowledges this difficulty, but implores teachers to rise to the challenge. “Often the best instruction may require teachers to implement the difficult process of using tests to assess performance and then changing the style and content of their teaching on the basis of the outcome of the tests,” he says.
In the end, tests may just hold the key to our educational success—as long as educators are willing to commit the time and effort required to design tests that foster learning rather than impede it. It’s time to stop teaching to the test, because if done properly, teaching is the test.
Jessica Lahey is a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middle, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.