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3 Ways to Use Testing as a Learning Tool

By Wendi Pillars — May 12, 2015 6 min read
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We teachers know that testing can be good—when it is used to inform instruction. What we’re not so good at is understanding and then teaching our students how testing can be a tremendous tool for learning.

What follows are three ways to rethink and redo testing. Ideally, you would start this at the beginning of a unit, theme, or project, but any point will do, especially if you have the bigger picture in mind. It always helps to have a map.

1) Start with failure. More and more edu-speak emphasizes the importance of failure in learning. In most classrooms, though, this is either a lot of hype or reactive in nature. Being proactive and anticipating with your students that failure is indeed going to happen shifts the paradigm with a jolt.

Providing your students with a unit pretest they’re destined to fail is actually beneficial for learning, according to the Testing Effect. A well-designed pretest primes your brain, awakens those connectors to prior knowledge, and can provide students with cues not only into their testing style, but for key information and concepts ahead.

The mere act of guessing engages your mind in a different and more demanding way than straight memorization or being fed answers. This is also known as generation. Somewhat counterintuitively, doing this regularly also sets up your classroom community for understanding that the value of knowledge lies in the processes of learning, rather than just the outcome.

To do: Include essential questions, big ideas, and smaller, more concrete facts on pretests to provide a range of questioning as well as levels of thinking needed in the class. Set up dates for quizzes to place more responsibility back on students. A schedule diminishes pop quiz anxiety and lets students know it’s coming, and the quizzes themselves will be viewed as studying tools that spiral information from the beginning of the unit, not just the most current one. What results is a demand for effortful retrieval and quizzes that promote active repetition of information, not merely passive repetition as we so often encourage through re-reading. Better recall can occur through the use of testing!

2) Make it difficult, but desirably so. Spreading out quizzes during the unit/project/semester adheres to the spacing effect of studying. Ironically—not to mention frustratingly—students who forget a huge chunk of what they’ve just learned, especially a brand-new concept or topic, are demonstrating healthy cognitive behavior. One of the keys to effective spacing stems from realizing that 90 percent of what is learned is forgotten within a day of learning it. Instead of freaking out, spread out study activities and practices over time to increase retention.

Let’s be up front with our students and use testing as a tool. The harder we work to retrieve a memory, the greater our increase in retrieval and storage strength, which means greater learning! This is called desirable difficulty. For both higher retrieval and storage strength of information, there needs to be some forgetting—some breakdown which forces the brain to work harder to dig up a memory or skill. This makes retrieval intentional and demands continual adjustments for specific problem-solving contexts. Students are subsequently more discerning as they determine which information to apply or revisit. Discerning the best skills, content, or other information to apply is the art of transfer, one of the primary indicators that learning has occurred.

To do: Schedule and space out quizzes just long enough for students to forget a little, or create questions that require synthesis of multiple ideas. Provide myriad problems and opportunities for them to apply their information discerningly. Mix it up skill-wise and content-wise, and even change their physical spaces with sensory changes—new smells, sounds, and visuals—so that their encoding is richer. Research shows better results from recalling information from memory than from merely recognizing the correct answer. Ask students to tell you how and why immediate recall in the form of tests can be an effective learning device.

3) Make students work. Retrieval leads to reconsolidation of memories. No single memory, once retrieved, is ever the same again. When students work to retrieve a memory, it alters what they remember and changes how it is organized later in the mind because multiple retrieval routes to the information are created. This is known as reconsolidation. Simply rereading a text has shown to be the least effective means of learning or studying—yet this is what we all seem to rely on!

Learners can be easily fooled by the fluency illusion—the ease with which you call a fact to mind. Re-reading text and thinking you’ve “got this” because you know what comes next isn’t the same as hiding the answers and recalling them from memory. Ironically, the easier it is to call forth facts, the smaller your increase in learning, unless that ease comes after a delay. Repeating facts right after you’ve learned them has no added memory benefit, unless there is effort attached.

This is why recitation has become the “new” darling of memorizing, even though it has been around a long, long time. Recitation is taking time during reading or learning to “recite” what you have learned, read, or discovered, from memory. Recitation is an intentional self-exam; not only does it drive home the idea of effective learning as a definitive skill, but we see once again how testing IS a powerful kind of studying tool.

“If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite from time to time and consult the text when your memory fails.” This quote is attributed to Francis Bacon, from 1620! So why haven’t we embraced recitation? Anyone who tries it can see that it works, but, well, it takes work.

To do: Find more stopping points for students to recite what they’ve learned. Try think-pair-share activities, visual notetaking, and quickwrites, but do them consistently. Reflecting together about why we are doing these skills is crucial, too, as well as encouraging students to use them in other contexts and classrooms. Contrasting information recall using re-reading versus recitation will also be useful for students to experience the difference firsthand.

As you embrace more testing, remember the following:

  • Be explicit with your students about each strategy—the how and the why.
  • Engage them as partners in learning, and share your own reflections along the way.
  • Talk to your students about each step, and tell them you’re trying something new.
  • Remind them that learning is an acquired skill, and there will be ups and downs.

Once students understand how to test themselves, space out their study times, vary their study locations, and be more mindful through recitation, they will become more confident learners. The strategies won’t work for everyone, but my goal is to plant seeds and inform every student I teach. These are life skills enmeshed in their everyday learning. We can’t always count on our students to study intentionally on their own, but we can guide them through it in class so they can experience it for themselves.

There is more—oh, there is so much more, but here is where you can start: a comprehensive pre-test followed by more explicit discussion about testing as a tool for learning (gasp!), and the need for desirable difficulty. Work to honor the inevitable forgetting but use strategies like recitation and spacing for bringing that knowledge back and reconsolidating to strengthen memories.

One month left, you say, before those other Tests-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named? Yes. All the more reason to teach kids about their role in their own learning. Test their limits. Test their expectations. Test their thinking. Above all, test the learning process together. That’ll show you what they’re made of more than any single score ever will.


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