The Importance of Testing

Complaints are being received from teachers that testing is interfering with the education of students because they have to teach to the test.  There are two points to be made here.  First of all, testing is necessary to measure whether anything is being learned.  The second point is that testing rather than interfere with learning, can enhance learning.  These points were effectively made in a Scientific American Article that can be found at

An example of one of these effective teaching techniques was provided in the article.  The teacher posted a multiple choice question on a smartboard screen.  The students clicked in their answers which were posted on the bottom of the smart board screen.  So the students needed to retrieve information to make their selections.  The teacher received feedback on the knowledge of the class, and was able to provide feedback for the wrong answers.  When every student provides the correct answer, the class members raise their hands and wiggle their fingers in unison, which is an exuberant gesture that they call “spirit fingers.”

There is ample evidence from research in cognitive psychology that retrieval practice increases learning.  Whenever we retrieve a memory, the memory representation changes, and its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable, and more accessible.  If material is simply reread, this retrieval practice does not occur.  Retrieval strengthens and has additional benefits noted by cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Karpicke.  He notes that as our memory is necessarily selective, the usefulness of a fact or idea—as demonstrated by how often we have reason to recall it—makes a sound basis for selection.   He said that “our minds are sensitive to the likelihood that we’ll need knowledge at a future time, and if we retrieve a piece of information now, there’s a good chance that we’ll need it again.  The process of retrieving a memory alters that memory in anticipation of demands we may encounter in the future.”

Karpicke argues that retrieving is the principal way learning happens, “Recalling information we’re already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event that storing that information in the first place.  Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.”  Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related material that was not directly tested.  When we are sifting through our mind for the particular piece of information we are trying to recollect, we call up associated memories and in doing so strengthen them as well.

I remember from my college day the yellow marked sections whenever I had a previously owned text.  I made it a point to never rely upon those yellow marked sections.  It was my guess that when studying for a test, the previous user simply reread the highlighted section.  I never did that.   I always tried to recall the gist of the material, and then I checked my recall.  If just rereading highlighted sections was done, my guess is that the best result would be a C.  My goal was an A, and I often received them.

There are hundreds of studies hat have demonstrated retrieval practice is better than virtually any other method of teaching, including doing concept maps.

Research using fMRI has shown that calling up information from memory versus simply restudying it, produces higher levels of activity in particular areas of the brain. These regions are associated with the consolidation, or stabilization, of memories and with the generation of cues that makes memory readily accessible for later recall.  Research has demonstrated that the more active these regions are during an initial learning session, the more successful is recall weeks or months later.

So this testing versus learning complaint is a pseudo issue.  It is not an issue of teaching to the test.  Rather it is a matter of developing teaching plans that require students to actively recall information rather than to simply reread material that will likely be on the  test.  This is a pseudo complaint.  If done properly it is a win win issue.

However, according to the Scientific American article there is a feature of standardized tests that prevents them from being used more effectively as  occasions for learning, and that is that the questions they ask tend to be of a superficial natures, which tends to lead to superficial learning.  There is a tool called Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, created by Norman Webb, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.  This tool identifies four levels of mental rigor:
DOK1 (simple recall)
DOK2 (application of skills and concepts)
DOK3 (reasoning and inference)
DOK4 (extended planning and investigation)
Most questions on state tests were DOK1 or DOK2.

So rather than complain about testing, the complaints should be on the DOK required on the tests.  The deeper the depth of knowledge, the better the test, which leads to more effective learning.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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