Testing has become a bad word in our society, largely because our educational system places a strong emphasis on high-stakes assessments and standardized evaluations. For many students — perhaps even for most students — getting high test scores is their primary goal in school. And who could blame them? Getting good grades, attaining high SAT/ACT scores, and receiving college acceptance letters depends on how well one can perform on tests. It’s no wonder it’s a source of enormous stress for students, teachers, and parents alike. Heck, I’m getting stressed out just writing about testing!
What, if anything, should be done about this? Given my opening remarks, it may surprise you that my proposed solution is more testing, not less, with the major qualification being that we start viewing — and using — tests more as learning tools than assessment tools. Allow me to explain…
Over the last century, research in cognitive psychology has ushered in the following undeniable empirical reality: Testing enhances learning. Attempting to retrieve information from memory leads to a host of direct and indirect benefits with respect to the retention, understanding, and application of knowledge and skills. Learning scientists call this the testing effect (or the retrieval practice effect), and it’s one of the most robust and reliable findings in the scientific literature on human learning and memory.
Let’s start with the direct effect of testing on learning, which can be summarized as follows: Retrieving from memory strengthens memory. To illustrate, consider a study conducted by Roediger & Karpicke (2006) in which students were assessed on their ability to remember a reading assignment. After an initial reading of a passage on general topics like the sun and sea otters, students either re-read the passage or took a practice test on it that did not provide any kind of feedback on how well they did. The students then returned for a final test five minutes, two days, or one week later. As you might expect, when they were tested five minutes later, students who re-read the passage did a little bit better than those who took the test without getting a chance to re-read the material. But after two days, the pattern reversed: The students who took the practice test remembered more than those who re-read the passage. After a week, the results were even more pronounced: The students who re-read the passage remembered only 42% of the material, whereas the students who received an interim practice test remembered 56% of what they read. In other words, taking a test after studying once led to much better long-term retention than studying the information twice.
In a follow-up experiment, the same researchers wondered if repeatedly re-reading the material might make a difference, so they tested that, too. One group of students studied a short passage during four study periods. On average, they read the passage about 14 times during the study sessions. Another group studied the material during one study session and then took three consecutive practice tests on the material, again receiving no feedback after those tests. These students were able to read the passage about three times before the practice testing started. A week later both groups of students were tested to see how much of the passage they remembered.
Now, intuition would suggest that reading a short passage 14 times would lead to exceptional long-term learning, if not outright memorization. But when they were tested a week later, students who read the passage 14 times recalled only 40% of the material. What about the students who read that passage three times and then completed three practice tests? They recalled 61% of the material! Thus, the more students were tested, the more they remembered. That’s because the process of retrieving information from memory helps the information stick.
Testing has significant indirect effects on learning, too. The results of a test reveal what students do and don’t know. This is important for teachers because it can help inform their future lesson plans, and it’s important for students because it can inform their future study plans. For an empirical example of this, Dr. Robert Bjork (UCLA) and I found that for students who studied information repeatedly, taking an intervening practice test led to more efficient and effective re-studying compared to when no intervening practice test was given (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2014). This suggests that even the assessment qualities of a test can — and should — be harnessed to improve later learning.
One issue that often comes up during discussions of testing is test anxiety, an overwhelming feeling of dread, worry, and fear of failure that occurs before and during testing situations. Obviously, this is a real and debilitating problem for many students and one that hits close to home for me. If I’m concerned about test anxiety, why would I endorse more testing? Wouldn’t more testing just create more test anxiety? You may be surprised to hear that research on this topic shows that testing — or retrieval practice — reduces test anxiety. For example, one study of nearly 1,500 middle- and high-schoolers found that 72% of students who attended classes that incorporated frequent retrieval practice exercises — like quizzes — reported that the retrieval practice made them feel less anxious about upcoming tests in their classes (Agarwal et al., 2014). As counterintuitive as it may seem, more testing results in less test anxiety.
To take greater advantage of testing as a learning tool and antidote to test anxiety, we should encourage our students to retrieve information from their own long-term memories as much as possible. Frequent low- or no-stakes quizzing is an obvious way to do this, but there are many others. For example, having students teach material to their peers (or someone at home) requires memory retrieval, as does playing certain memory games (e.g., retrieval practice challenge grids; see Tweet).
Asking lots of questions during class can also be effective, especially if you can find ways of getting all your students to participate in answering them. To help with this, try having students use index cards with answer choices (e.g., true/false, A-D) written on them, or small dry-erase boards for students to display their answers. Instead of “exit tickets,” consider using “entrance tickets” (see Tweet below) to capitalize on the benefits of long-term memory retrieval. Finally, be sure to communicate with your students that testing — or retrieval — is good for their learning and encourage self-testing regularly. Tell them that Google should be used as a last resort, not as a first instinct!
To be clear, I’m not advocating for more high-stakes assessments. I think kids take enough of those. What I’m arguing here is that we should take greater advantage of testing as a learning tool. Most people think of testing as a way to measure what’s been learned, but decades of research have shown that testing improves learning itself. Therefore, we should start viewing and using tests as a means to an end, a powerful way to equip our students with the knowledge and skills we want them to possess.
Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H. L., McDermott, K. B., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Classroom-based programs of retrieval practice reduce middle school and high school students’ test anxiety. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 131–139.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Testing facilitates the regulation of subsequent study time. Journal of Memory and Language, 73, 99–115.