Like most teachers, the end of the year has brought on a lot of reflection on what could have been better. I’ve been reading through the work of Robert Bjork, renowned memory and forgetting researcher, and have begun to think hard about the implications of some of his work. In light of his work, and upon reflecting on my year in the classroom, I have come to the conclusion that I did not test my students nearly enough. That may seem controversial. Bjork himself acknowledges that any talk of testing students is often met with a negative reaction amongst educators. To some extent, this is understandable. I can understand that if testing is interpreted as high stakes SAT or NAPLAN style assessment regimes then, yes, many would have ill feelings. I for one am not completely opposed to NAPLAN (I do think it is deeply flawed) and I have taught an English Year 6 class that sat SATs. I think they have a place; however, they are heavily misused. No one wants to see schools hung out to dry, left to bear the brunt of often unfair public scrutiny. It is this misuse that causes people to despise them.
Assessment regimes are not what I mean when I say ‘test’ though. A test doesn’t necessarily have to be an assessment; it does not need to be high stakes. It could simply be a multiple choice quiz or something else of the sort. Bjork posits that tests can do more than assess knowledge; tests can also be learning events in themselves. This is because a test causes us to use our memory; that is, we are forced to retrieve information stored in long-term memory in order to answer the questions. This is extremely beneficial for learning because retrieving a memory strengthens the memory itself, and the retrieval associated with testing often leads to greater improvements in learning than additional study.
Another important reason why testing is beneficial for learning is that it provides very clear feedback to the learner about whether or not they have learnt something. Once a student has been exposed to material, their judgement of how well they have mastered that material is not very good. Whereas if that same student were being quizzed on their knowledge, they would be getting good information about what they do and do not know, or what they know well and sort of know. In this way, students gain a lot from self-assessing where they are at through testing and will pay close attention to explanations on why they got it right, wrong or half right. This can lead to better study or attention to a learning task thereafter, as, for example, the student who has been shown that their counting down strategy has resulted in 12 – 3 = 10, because they included 12 in the count, will be careful to modify this in subsequent practise sessions.
Multiple choice tests seem to be of particular benefit to learning. This is because a multiple choice question causes students to spontaneously recall information related to the other incorrect alternatives to the question. In this way, students are strengthening their knowledge of tested and untested material on the same question. Kindergarteners have a strong misconception for what is a triangle when they enter school. Most of them think a triangle is this and nothing else:
They do not realise that any shape can be a triangle as long as it has three straight sides and three vertices. After learning this, a teacher could present a multiple choice question that would cause the students to think hard about what is and is not a triangle.
In this way, students are not only becoming familiar with what a triangle is but also what a triangle is not. The question would cause the students to think hard about the incorrect alternatives and why they are incorrect, leading to stronger learning. Some of these examples are not so straightforward for a kindergartener and could lead to some really interesting discussion (c and d). I’m confident a question like this, in light of the work done by Bjork and colleagues, would lead to stronger learning gains than simply restudying the material taught so far.
I think that I will integrate more tests into my practice next year. Michaela Community School – a free school in England – do daily recaps and weekly quizzes and I never really fully understood why they were so keen to share this practice until now. It is clear that having students engage in frequent testing does much more than provide assessment information, they provide powerful opportunities to learn, too. I’m keen to leverage this in the future.