If you want your kid to learn, testing is a good thing

It doesn’t have to be a high-stress affair.
It doesn’t have to be a high-stress affair.
Image: Reuters
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Here’s a test: Are tests a waste of time?

Popular opinion would say yes. Parents and educators in the US are concerned that tests are disproportionately being used to hold teachers and schools accountable, with negligible benefits for students.

Annie Murphy Paul, author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart disagrees. Tests are not only good, she argues, they are necessary to reinforce learning. Used correctly, tests help students do three things: remember what they have learned, learn about their own learning (what they do and do not know), and foster skills needed to face challenges in life. “Tests represent a kind of controlled adversity, an ideal arena for honing skills like resilience and perseverance,” she writes in the New York Times.

Research backs up this claim. In one set of experiments, Henry Roediger III, a cognitive psychologist at Washington University, tested students in two groups, one group that engaged in traditional study techniques such as reading and re-reading materials, or highlighting passages and writing notes, and another group that was frequently tested on the material. The test takers did better, as Jessica Lahey highlights in this Atlantic article: ”Taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect on future retention of that material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material,” Roediger said in the article.

Lahey, who is an English teacher, argues that there are good and bad tests. Summative tests assess your accumulated knowledge at a point in time, like the SAT, and formative tests are used to measure what students do and do not know about a subject and can help inform how to teach. Not surprisingly, she’s a fan of the latter, especially when done frequently. She writes:

Formative assessments are not meant to simply measure knowledge, but to expose gaps in knowledge at the time of the assessment so teachers may adjust future instruction accordingly. At the same time, students are alerted to these gaps, which allows them to shape their own efforts to learn the information they missed.

Murphy Paul offers up strategies to help parents and educators tackle tests. Some seem obvious to us but may not be to our homework-hating children. Students should:

  • Self-test: write out notes, or use flashcards to activate retrieval more than just reading and re-reading passages.
  • Not cram.
  • Put things in an unpredictable order so they are required to think more about the question they are being asked.
  • And look at their tests when get them back for more than the score. She suggests exam wrappers, or instructions that help kids reflect on what they got right or wrong on the test. She writes:

In a perfect world, schools, parents and students would consciously treat tests as occasions for learning and growth, focusing less on the result and more on the powerful benefits of simply taking the test in the first place.

Her suggestion is simple: rather than get rid of tests, make the tests sensible exercises that allow children to learn, not high-stakes, high-stress affairs where teachers’ futures and schools’ ratings are riding on the results.