Teach With, Not 'To' the Test

Psychology and Neuroscience agree that tests themselves can be a valuable teaching tool, when they're brief, they're frequent, and they offer students immediate feedback. 


SPECIAL MINISERIESDr. Wang Explains Your Child's Brain.

What exactly is “teaching to the test”? If you’re a fan of the nationwide public school “accountability movement”, which has resulted in more frequent standardized testing at every grade level, it means teaching kids what national education experts agree they need to know.

If you hate the movement, it means either a) teaching test prep tricks, or b) teaching a limited range of factoids that are likely to appear on the test, in lieu of more meaningful content.

According to Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, tests can be a valuable teaching tool when used effectively, and when used in combination with enjoyable, interactive projects that enable students to construct meaning actively (rather than learning it by rote). 
Sam Wang: It turns out that both psychology and neuroscience research have converged on the idea that testing itself can, in fact, enhance learning. So, for instance, if I give you a little quiz, then immediately after I say “well, that part was right, and that part was wrong,”  then you, the student, will often learn a little bit more. 
On this score, standardized tests fall short as a teaching tool in that they don’t provide immediate feedback. The student gets a (monolithic, non-itemized) score weeks or months later. Few teachers revisit the test questions, allowing each student to examine and learn from her mistakes.

The high stakes of state and citywide tests (in New York, for example, they are used to determine middle and high-school placement) also limit their effectiveness as a teaching tool, and introduce potentially harmful anxiety into the learning environment. The degree of harm depends upon the fragility of the child, but even at best, anxiety’s a lousy teacher. 
Sam Wang: When children play, they're learning more, they’re relaxed, they’re happy. And so teaching children anything under conditions of stress is in fact counterproductive to whatever it is that you want the child to learn.
By this logic, frequent, public, low-stakes pop quizzes structured as a game, possibly with the class divided into competing teams, would be an ideal use of testing as a learning tool.
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.

Once again, hour-long standardized tests lose. They’re frequent enough to cause anxiety, but too rare and too long to support learning effectively. Depending on their quality, they might succeed in improving curricula or measuring some aspects of student learning. But their ubiquity means these tests are becoming a big part of instruction in public schools, a role they're not performing very well.  

Dr. Wang does note one unintended possible benefit of standardized tests – they teach persistence:
Sam Wang: Persistence is a trait that serves us well in many areas of our lives, many things that we have to do later on in life. So even though it may seem unpleasant to make a third-grader sit through a test, you’re giving the child an environment in which sitting for an hour is something they have to do. And as we all learn later in life, we all have to sit through things for an hour sometimes, whether we like it or not.

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