Daily tests cut achievement gap

Daily online testing raised college students’ performance in a University of Texas experiment.  The achievement gap between lower- and upper-middle class students narrowed by 50 percent in a large lecture class. Tested students didn’t just earn higher grades in Psychology 101. They “performed better in other classes, both in the semester they took the course and in subsequent semester classes.”

Testing teaches self-regulation, say Professors James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling, who co-teach Psych 101.

One important self-regulatory method to improve preparation and performance is to give students frequent testing along with rapid, targeted, and structured feedback on their performance, so that they can adjust their learning and studying strategies in time to improve their performance in a course. Recent research has demonstrated that the mere act of testing helps students to remember and retrieve information more efficiently.

Each class day, students answered seven questions given to everyone and one personalized question, usually one they’d gotten wrong on a previous test, reports the New York Times.  They got the results immediately.

Most students hated it at first, Dr. Pennebaker said. Course evaluations “were the lowest ever.”

By the end of the course, however, the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams — scoring 10 percent higher on a subset of 17 questions that appeared on both classes’ tests. The quizzed group also got slightly higher grades, the study found.

The grade improvements were sharpest among students from lower-income backgrounds — those from poor-quality schools “who were always smartest in class,” Dr. Gosling said.

“Then they get here and, when they fail the first midterm, they think it’s a fluke,” he went on. “By the time they’ve failed the second one, it’s too late. The hole’s too deep. The quizzes make it impossible to maintain that state of denial.”

Students had to do the reading and pay attention in class to pass the quizzes. They also had to show up. Attendance usually drops to 60 percent by mid-semester, Dr. Pennebaker said. “In this quiz class it was 90 percent.”

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  1. Any time students keep up with class (by attending, reading, doing problem sets) instead of putting off studying until it’s not possible to learn the material in the allotted time, they do better. I tend to think that if they had frequent low-stakes assessment in high school or freshman classes, they’d have established good study habits by the time that they reach upper level classes.

  2. So as long as we call drilling “repeated testing”, we’re good to go!

    • I wonder how much was merely due to the improvement in attendance, versus students actually changing study habits.

  3. Bostonian says:

    If employers use a BA qualification to filter out people who are not disciplined enough to keep up with their work without daily quizzes, such quizzing could increase student learning *and* reduce the value of the BA credential.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Unless that daily quizzing made keeping up a habit. In which case it raises the value of the BA credential.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’ve said this from time to time: Sort of like how the military does it.
    Don’t tell anybody.

  5. I notice the phrase “he achievement gap between lower- and upper-middle class students”; Is this something new, because I have never heard of it. Achievement gap, to me, is between races. There exists a SES-based gap on SAT scores but that is not a gap, but it is a continuous curve. By defining my own gaps, I can define my own solutions, it seems.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If you take a lot of students and put some of them in a box called lower-middle class and put some others in a box called upper-middle class, and calculate the average SAT score of the students in each box, you will find a gap between the average score of the lower-middle class students and the average score of the upper-middle class students.

      The same thing happens if you sort students into boxes by race.

      It seems different because socio-economic status seems to vary continuously while race seems to be discontinuous: you are, say, either black or white. That has never really been true in America–most American “blacks” have some white or Native American ancestry–and it is becoming less true every year.