School & District Management

How About Teaching With the Test, Rather Than to It?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 03, 2010 2 min read
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The Department of Education just handed out $330 million in grants to two state coalitions to design the “next-generation” tests of students’ readiness for college and careers. It’s gotten me thinking: What would a perfect test look like? Would “teaching to the test” be kosher if schools had fantastic assessments of higher-order thinking, problem-solving and the like?

In the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, a study out of Washington University at St. Louis, Mo., suggests students can learn better by teach with the test, rather than to it.

Psychologist Andrew C. Butler, author of the study, found that repeated and varied testing helped students transfer their learning to new tasks better than simply studying the information. In four separate experiments, undergraduate students studied a series of six passages on different topics. For two topics, they repeatedly restudied the material; for the other four topics, the students repeatedly took either the same or varied tests on the material. A week later, the students took final tests on the topics.

Butler found students who had been retested either with the same questions or variations performed at least twice as well on factual questions and nearly 50 percent better on conceptual questions in the final test than did students who studied the material repeatedly. Moreover, in a follow-up experiment, Butler found that students who were tested repeatedly could make better inferences about new questions based on their previous knowledge, such as relating differences in the wings of birds and bats to the maneuverability of new aircraft. Butler theorized that test-taking allowed students both to apply new knowledge and to get feedback to correct misconceptions.

The results emphasize the importance of high-quality tests as a tool for teaching rather than a distraction from it. The National Testing Survey in progress at Harvard University Graduate School of Education is attempting to crystallize an “ideal test,” of this sort, according to Zachary Stein, Harvard doctoral candidate and deputy director of the Developmental Testing Service, which sponsors the survey. It’s in the early stages, but so far suggests that while people of different ethnic backgrounds and education levels view today’s tests differently, there is general agreement about high-quality tests. In short, everyone wants a test that can measure student progress while also helping educators teach.

If you want to put your own two cents in, the survey is still ongoing here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.