THE POWER OF STRESS-FREE TESTING

(For Teachers)


The requirements of our present-day economically-competitive, growth-centric society—and its dated yet accepted approach to education—mean that testing is viewed as an evaluation tool. It is rarely viewed as a learning tool. This is unfortunate, for testing, if performed under stress-free conditions, and if timed appropriately, can produce better recall of facts—as well as a deeper and more nuanced understanding—than can be achieved by learning without testing.


When testing is applied as a learning tool, it is commonly called retrieval practice. The premise for using this tool is that every time a piece of information is recollected from memory, the memory itself changes. The neurological structure of the memory becomes stronger, more stable and requires less energy and effort when accessed in the future.


Furthermore, fMRI studies have shown that recalling information from memory, as compared with simply rereading it, generates significantly higher levels of activity in areas of the brain associated with consolidation. And it was shown that high activation in these areas while learning results in superior long-term retention.


Some experts would venture so far as to say that recalling what we already know is a more powerful learning event than storing that same information in the first place.


Interestingly, testing not only improves retention for the information being retrieved, but also stimulates and improves retention for related information—i.e., information that was not specifically tested but is somehow connected.


Moreover, the act of testing—of consciously calling to mind information from memory and applying it to a challenge—also promotes what is commonly referred to as deep learning. Practitioners immersed in deep learning are able to understand the underlying principles of a topic and to draw inferences from these; they are able to connect the individual pieces of information, and they are able to apply this understanding in different contexts and circumstances (which is commonly referred to as transfer).  


For all the abovementioned reasons, teachers should aim to make testing a central part of the students learning process. Alas, given the way by which testing can ultimately determine one’s future, and the way that such a dependency has been embedded in the education system for so long, it is challenging to reintroduce innocent, stress-free testing as a learning tool. Nonetheless, for teachers and schools that want to make a real impact on their students, here is a proposed recipe:


Preparatory steps


  1.  First, teach them how to learn. This topic is typically missing from most countries’ education curriculum. It is unfortunate, as some students with high potential but with a neurological makeup that deviates slightly from the norm, and, frequently, students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds (with no access to tutoring as well as other socioeconomic and psychological factors), are simply left behind. What is more, and unnecessarily so, a portion of these students may even become caught in a self-fulfilling vicious cycle of “learning difficulties”, which often persists and dominates their careers and later life. And what a loss this is. Teach them how to learn—precisely what steps are required—and you equip them with the single most important piece of information you, as a teacher, could possibly impart.
  2.  Then teach them about Revision. Related to the previous point, another topic that is often neglected is Revision. It is either assumed that students—uninstructed in the need to do so—will spend their free time maintaining their knowledge of that which had already been taught, or it is assumed that their memories are infallible and persist perpetually. Neither of the two assumptions are likely to apply.
    Emphasize that to master more advanced topics, knowledge of the basic principles must be maintained. Crucially, explain that performing a revision does not mean simply rereading a set of notes. This is a significant misconception. Such approach had been scientifically shown to be suboptimal. Performing an effective revision involves testing one’s knowledge.


After setting up the groundwork, introduce stress-free testing


  1.  The key is to balance inconsequentiality with engagement. The testing environment has to be playful and fun. The results of the tests should have no impact on the student’s final grade. One approach is to anonymize the results. This permits the teacher to gauge the progress of the class while assuring the student that the test will not affect their grade (note, however, that targeting individuals that are lagging behind is not possible once anonymized). But how to keep it engaging? The class as a group can be rewarded (with treats, a movie, an activity, a game chosen by the class, etc.—all depending, of course, on the age group involved) if certain targets are met (e.g., everyone was able to score 95% or above).
  2.  Keep it short and reinforce during the optimal window. The teacher’s role is then to identify the topics that require further work and to deliver that knowledge immediately after the gap has been identified. The timing is crucial: the act of testing stimulates the brain to accept/relearn/reinforce the material being tested. So allow sufficient time for testing as well as targeted teaching.
  3.  Test format. The specifications will vary between topics, the level of the class, as well as the age group of the students involved. Multiple-choice is the easiest form to use; however, in its basic form, it merely targets the recall of facts. Yet it can—and gradually should—be modified to test deeper levels of understanding. (For example, a question could require knowledge of basic facts in combination with deductive reasoning based on taught methodologies to arrive at the answer—which can be selected from the multiple choices available.)
  4.  Low-tech approach: mix the stack of anonymized test papers and let each student mark one paper. Evaluate weak areas and focus the rest of the session on improving the class’s understanding of the ideas involved.
  5.  High-tech approach: use digital tools (e.g. the Socrative app) to verify the results and identify areas that require further instruction.
  6. Apply regularly. Testing should not be a one-off event—that is only relevant when it plays an evaluation role. For revision and knowledge accumulation, testing should be applied regularly to newly taught material as well as to the absolute basics taught long ago.


References


Agarwal, Pooja K., Patrice M. Bain, and Roger W. Chamberlain. 2012. "The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist." Educational Psychology Review (Springer US) 24 (3): 437-448.

Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham. 2013. "Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology." Psychological Science in the Public Interest (SAGE Publications) 14 (1): 4-58.

Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Henry L. Roediger. 2008. "The critical importance of retrieval for learning." Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 319 (5865): 966-968.

Paul, Annie M. 2015. "A new vision for testing." Scientific American 313 (2): 54-61.


Rod Bremer is the author of The Manual: A Guide to the Ultimate Study Method (Second Edition), ISBN 978-0993496424. The Manual is the definitive guide to Enhanced Concentration, Super Memory, Speed Reading, Optimal Note-Taking, Rapid Mental Arithmetic, and the Ultimate Study Method (USM). The techniques presented are the culmination of decades of practical experience combined with the latest scientific research and time-tested practices.
















(For more about The Manual, see here.)

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