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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The case for quizzes: Students learn more -- and feel less anxious

Timed tests are unpopular with progressive educators, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. They think they're stressful and reward the ability to perform under pressure rather than deep thinking.

But there's evidence that low-stakes testing improves learning -- and reduces anxiety.

Several meta-analyses, which summarize the evidence from many studies, have found higher achievement when students take quizzes instead of, say, reviewing notes or rereading a book chapter. Furthermore, practice tests and quizzes reduce test anxiety, concludes David Shanks, a professor of psychology and deputy dean of the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London.

Low-stakes tests put students in "the shallow end" of the swimming pool, he said. The next time they go a bit deeper.

It's not clear whether students learn to tolerate testing through exposure or whether their less anxious because they've learned more, Barshay writes.

Competency alone isn't enough, Shanks believes. “We know that many high achieving students get very anxious,” he said. “So it can’t just be that your anxiety goes down as your performance goes up.”

To minimize test anxiety, Shanks suggests ungraded practice tests or tests with multiple retakes, and "gamified quizzes."

Students learn more from difficult practice tests, but also experience more anxiety, he told Barshay. He's seeking the "sweet spot" where tests are hard enough but not too hard.

I think a lot of the opposition to testing comes from people who don't want to hear bad news. They don't know how to use data to improve instruction. It's so much easier to kill the messenger.

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