My students moan about my chemistry class. Every Friday, I require students to take a test. With so much riding on test results for both teachers and students, the external examinations required by the Cambridge system my school employs appears to encourage more cheating than learning. At best, they foster memorization, but at the expense of originality and critical thinking. The dreaded teaching to the test. Today, information can be more easily—and accurately— searched online than mentally recalled, old-fashioned testing strikes its critics as obsolete. But it turns out that the right kinds of assessments—frequent, short tests—can actually yield big educational benefits. It’s called the “testing effect,” and it is my belief that educators are missing an opportunity by not doing more to take advantage of it.
One of the major problems with the standardized testing is that it is built on the assumption that there’s a fixed amount of knowledge and ability in a student’s head, which the test merely measures. But that’s not what research has shown. Done properly, testing is not impotent. Rather, it can be much more like Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The act of testing students, actually affects how much knowledge they retain, how well they retain it and how they apply it.
Educational researcher Andrew Butler
has shown that testing facilitates creative problem solving, a major objection against testing. Undergraduates were given six text passages filled with facts and concepts. He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did these latter students demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked apply these concepts in completely new contexts. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.
The key to this effect is the timing. The sooner students are tested after learning new material, the more it sinks in, the longer you wait to test students the less recall. On the other hand, the more testing a student gets on a given set of more information, the greater the benefits. With the first few tests, students show dramatic gains. With further testing, the positive effects on retention taper off. But surprisingly, there is no plateau. Even after 20 or 30 tests, students’ performances progressively improve with each additional test.
No one is entirely sure what causes the effect. One possible explanation is that connections between neurons increase when you reinforce the learning with examinations. If you don't “use it you lose it.” Because recalling during test-taking requires real mental effort, it may force the brain to create multiple, alternative pathways for accessing the same piece of information. Frequent mental struggle strengthens these networks. This may be why, for all the drawbacks of external examinations featuring lots of practice exams, they force students to retrieve the information on all those flash cards, they provide helpful mental workouts. So although it has it's critics, evidence suggests that examinations and tests still hold an important place in the modern educational system.