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Using Testing Wisely

By Peter J. Foley, Ed.D. Editor-in-Chief
Let’s make the distinction right away between high stakes testing and low stakes testing. High stakes testing include standardized tests and final exams. Standardized tests often determine whether someone will get an entrance into University. A final exam often determines in large part the final grade a student will receive.

In Thailand, students take a national exam in grade six of high school to determine college entrance. Americans take the S.A.T. or similar standardized tests. And the Chinese and Japanese have similar high stakes testing tools. High stakes testing is almost universal. Such exams put enormous pressure on students and many react negatively. But the main point I wish to make is that high stakes testing is not effective for learning.

On the other hand, low stakes testing is an excellent learning tool.

Low stakes testing usually takes the form of quizzes that may or may not be counted in a student’s grade. Recent research shows that low stakes quizzing helps people retrain more of what they learn. Henry L. Roediger, Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, provides convincing evidence of the efficacy of low stakes testing in his book “Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning.”
For example, in one study Professor Roediger conducted, students were assessed on how well they remembered a particular reading passage.

After an initial reading, students were tested on some passages by being given a blank sheet of paper and asked to recall as much as possible. They recalled 70% of the ideas. Other passages were not tested but were re-read, and thus 100 percent of the ideas were re-exposed in the final tests given either two days or a week later, the passages that had been tested just after reading were remembered much better than those that had been reread.

According to Professor Roedigger what is happening here in this Social Science study is students taking the quiz are getting practice in the retrieval of data. They are retrieving data from their memory bank. A very similar process happens when we review some learning in a classroom when the teacher instructs students to turn to their neighbor and share with each other what they learned.

Research has also shown that some teachers’ cherished study skills instruction to their students are not useful and do not contribute to improvements in learning retention. This includes techniques such as underlining or highlighting when reading. Professor Roedigger maintains that these suggested study skills just create the allusions of mastery, but are largely a waste of time because they do not provide any practice in accessing or applying what students are trying to learn.
Research also shows that low stakes quizzes that are administered over time spans of days or weeks or even months are the most effective retrieval leaning tools. Our brains need repetitive learning circuit patterns to establish long term memory.
The wise teacher will quiz/test his students accordingly.

One reply on “Using Testing Wisely”

I agree totally as my students tend to have higher success rates and fewer resits from my mid term and final exams. I attribute that to the many online quizzes I have prepared on my website for the students to complete. They do them at home and often from their phones and the scores are automatically tallied. Most of them the students have to get 100% so if they don’t pass the first time they have to keep repeating the quiz. This frees my class time up to concentrate on critical thinking and other activities.

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