Tests that teach (and those that don’t)

Tests can be a valuable teaching tool “when used in combination with enjoyable, interactive projects that enable students to construct meaning actively (rather than learning it by rote),” according to Big Think’s interview with Sam Wang, a Princeton neuroscientist.

Tests that provide immediate feedback enhance learning, says Wang. Standardized tests, which provide a non-itemized score weeks or months later, don’t let students learn from mistakes. High-stakes tests have limited value as a teaching tool. “Anxiety’s a lousy teacher.”

Wang recommends “low-stakes pop quizzes structured as a game, possibly with the class divided into competing teams.”

Frequency and brevity are important points here – regular quizzes ensure that learning is reinforced before students have time to forget the lesson, and keeping them brief divides the learning into discrete and memorable chunks.

Hour-long standardized tests do teach one valuable thing: Persistence.

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  1. Anxiety is a lousy teacher? On what planet? Better not tell that to the DMV.

    Bottom line is that if students have motivation to learn something, they will. Enjoyable, interactive projects to construct learning? That’s a lot of doublespeak for “lowering standards”.

  2. Maybe we could structure the quizzes around a Spongebob Squarepants theme.

  3. Hour long standardized tests don’t teach persistence, they test it.

  4. MagisterGreen says:

    Low-stress and frequent are old news. The best learning experience I ever had was when one of my graduate school classes quizzed me every time we met; I’ve never looked back. I do daily short quizzes for my students and it not only helps them learn but it gives them immediate feedback and helps me track students with problems.

    As for the rest, “construct[ing] meaning” is just another way of saying “don’t teach it; hope they figure it all out themselves.”

    And forget having the class compete against each other…it’s getting to the point where the powers-that-be won’t even give out academic awards lest students feel “excluded” for not achieving. Good grief.

  5. The anti-competition plague has been around since the 90s; the newly-minted principal at my older kids’ HS decreed that the athletic teams would have no cuts (over coaches’ objections). What a disaster! Since seniors were not allowed (state? county? reg) to play JV, the soccer varsity had to take several seniors who had never been able to make the JV! This was in a huge soccer area, where making even the JV required skills and tactics that could only be developed over years of D1-D2 travel team experience. Some freshmen and sophomores, with state and regional team experience, went directly to the varsity. Those seniors didn’t/couldn’t play or keep up with the conditioning and didn’t mesh with the team; I never understood why they would put themselves into such an uncomfortable situation. The next year, things went back to normal, athletically speaking and the following year the principal was moved to the county bureaucracy. (her new ideas were not limited to athletics and parents demanded that academic standards be maintained)

    In the same area, my younger kids’ ES would not let any kid get more than one individual award at the annual field day, regardless of how many events a kid actually won. My older son and I volunteered once, and saw this in action; all the kids knew it was a sham. My kids refused to participate the next year. I was so disgusted that I sent in an excuse note and we went downtown to the Smithsonian for the day.

    So, no classroom competition; think of all those poor bruised egos (as if all the kids don’t know who is the best speller, the best reader, the best at math, the fastest runner, the best batter etc.).

    • And we wonder why this country is in the mess it is? What ever happened to having to work hard for something, even if it means getting cut one year (remember Michael Jordan got cut in high school) and improving your skills to make the team the next year…

      Please…is this guy for real?

  6. After kids graduate and get jobs will their employers will just keep feeding them work in small, stress free bites of fun?

    Why are people afraid to ask a child to sit and concentrate on a task (like writing a test) for an hour? They all seem adept at focusing on a DVD for 2 hours without a mental breakdown.

    This obsession with focusing learning on ‘play’ and ‘having fun’ is not only on very shaky on purely academic grounds, but in our opinion very counter-productive in turning our children into responsible adults.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I can’t say I actually liked the short quizzes, but in retrospect, I guess they were valuable. I did pretty well on them, and probably not as well on the longer tests.

    I suppose if you can concentrate on a narrow area, you can learn it pretty well.

    Why not teach kids to persevere at long, long chores? Well, yeah. Why not? Because they’re kids. Their neurology isn’t complete, their socialization isn’t complete.
    Notice how we tell adult workers that if they do this or that–especially commission sales–they’ll see it in next week’s check? Kids, we start telling them in the fourth grade that if they stick with it for the next twelve to sixteen years, they’ll total a million more dollars income by retirement. Kind of backwards in terms of conceivable future time orientation.

    Public school is already miles away from the way evolution has prepared kids to learn.