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.”

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.