We have been lead to believe that tests are stress-inducing torture sessions which make people lose their minds. One must admit that taking tests does not fall into one’s fondest memories, and rightfully so. However, these negative experiences and the bad reputation testing has earned are not caused by some inherent flaws; rather they are a result of ineffective and outdated teaching practice.
Testing is extremely uncomfortable, not by itself, but because of the context in which it is placed. Tests usually entail high-stakes; one’s entire academic career, employment, or promotion might depend on one’s test results. It is understandable why people are so invested in it and why simply doing well on a test becomes a goal in and of itself. The fact is that tests are still the most efficient and objective way to assess learning. Furthermore, they have been proven to be excellent teaching tools in their own right. The question is not whether we should test, but how we do it and in which context.
Testing evaluates learning
Some would suggest that assignments and observations provide more than enough information on one’s learning progress; that it is less obtrusive and less stressful for the learners. However, testing is still the most accurate way to evaluate learning. If done right, tests provide objective and quantifiable results. Tests provide the most detailed account of one’s learning progress. Tests can flush out problems and sticking points which would otherwise go unnoticed through simple observation and assignment based evaluation. Through testing, one could realize that learners have been confusing some closely related concepts or that they are unable to apply ideas and principles in new situations, outside of textbook examples. Testing allows us to see whether students have truly grasped a concept or a principle so that they can take it and use it independently outside of the classroom. Tests provide immediate feedback to both learners and instructors so that problems can be timely addressed. There is no doubt that testing allows for more effective learning, whether in a classroom or a company setting.
Testing enhances learning
Tests are best known as an assessment strategy. What is less known is that tests are also a powerful tool for enhancing cognitive function and information retrieval in students. A growing body of studies has shown that repeated testing with subsequent feedback has considerable effects on knowledge retention and recall, even more so than restudying and simulation training. This phenomenon was termed the Testing Effect and was the subject of numerous studies that deal with human cognition; they have shown that testing maximizes learning outcomes regarding both information and skill learning.
The idea was that assessment drives learning through extrinsic factors. Namely, that testing influences student learning strategies through its format. However, it has been shown that testing can have intrinsic effects on memorizing studied material. Recent studies on intrinsic effects of testing provide evidence that testing students on studied materials resulted in improved retention compared to spending the same amount of time simply restudying the material. It is interesting that students assumed that repeated studying would be more beneficial for their learning outcomes and had no fear of forgetting, while they were skeptical about repeated testing and the absence of restudying.
Studies agree on the idea that repeated testing is the key to the Testing Effect. This phenomenon proved to be persistent through a variety of test formats and knowledge levels, though more elaborative retrieval processes yielded better results. For example, recall activities are more beneficial than recognition activities for subsequent performance.
How to do it right
The best way to reap the benefits of testing is to devise an authentic assessment strategy. An authentic assessment goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach of standardized tests and requires a hands-on approach from the instructor. Test designers must take both desired learning goals and learner needs into consideration. They should determine the degree of knowledge reproduction required to achieve each level of proficiency, compared to the attempted learning objectives. The best way to do it is to design strong questions.
Questions in tests and assessments are effective only if all learners understand them and their intended purpose. Instructions must be clear and unambiguous. A word or a punctuation mark in the wrong place could be the difference between clear and unclear instruction. Adding some background information works to further minimize the possibility of misinterpretation. Details are important, but one should avoid making questions too lengthy. Simple questions are easier to understand and to answer, as well as to score. Strong questions should provoke recall and consequently, active reproduction of acquired knowledge. The wording used should reflect the original learning objectives of the course. Difficulty should be calibrated and appropriate for the learner’s level of knowledge.
Tests have acquired a dreadful reputation and teachers are even being actively discouraged from using it in their assessment process. Numerous studies that prove that tests are hugely beneficial for knowledge retention and recall are still being ignored for some reason, regardless of the tremendous educational implications they bear. The trouble with testing is that it stopped being a matter of learning, but simply a matter of performance; cramming and memorizing copious amounts of information by heart only to display false mastery of the subject. They do well on a test and then forget it all as soon as they finish it. It can hardly be considered true learning. Sadly this is the effect that misguided instruction and evaluation produces. In order to avoid senseless regurgitation of unprocessed and unabsorbed material, we have to make learners realize that the test is not a goal in and of itself. Only that can help us numb the sting of testing and finally start to use it in the way which is most efficient – as a powerful learning tool.
YouTestMe professionals are aware of the benefits of testing. We provide teachers and trainers with eLearning solutions so that they can exploit these benefits to their full extent.