Testing for learning

A New York Times story, “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” has been very popular the past several days, topping the list of stories e-mailed to others.
Science writer Pam Belluck reported on a recent study (published in the journal Science) that suggested that “test-taking cements knowledge better than studying.” Recall test-taking (what the researchers called “retrieval practice”) worked significantly better as a method of learning than repeated study or concept mapping.
While the idea that testing aids learning may surprise some readers of the Times, there’s a wealth of evidence from research studies over the past decade supporting that notion.

This leaves some educators uneasy. They worry that an emphasis on testing can lead to “skill and drill” teaching and hamper true learning. Further, controversy over the high-stakes testing involved in “Leave No Child Behind” have predisposed some in the educational world to respond negatively to any discussion of increased testing.
I recognize that some of the distaste for testing has come from its use as an accountability measure. But we shouldn’t let the demonstrated value of testing-for-learning be lost in the political debate over whether standardized assessments are a valid way to performance. Properly designed and executed, testing can be a vital tool for learners to help achieve mastery of new material. That’s been our experience at MindEdge. In fact, we often encounter feedback from adult learners asking for more questions and problems in our courses.
Testing should be seen as a powerful way to spur problem-solving by the student. Nate and Sam Kornell argue that challenging tests are key, noting that “the process of trying to work through a problem to which we don’t know the answer focuses our attention on it in a way that simply studying it does not. The desire to get the answer right, and the frustration of failure, is partly to account.” In an article on the Miller-McCune website (“A Really Hard Test Really Helps Learning”) they conclude:

When we struggle to learn something, and fail, the moment we finally get the answer it imprints itself more deeply on our mind than it would have had struggle and failure not preceded it.

Teachers who make use of testing are not just reinforcing memory, but also spurring the development of critical thinking skills, according to some research. Anne McIlroy of the Globe and Mail reported on a study at Duke University that suggests testing can help students in applying their learning. Professor Andrew Butler gave students material on bats and how they use echolocation “to determine the size of objects and how far away they are.”
Butler quizzed one group of students on the information; he asked another group to put in more study time. Then he asked both the same question: “How would a bat determine whether an insect was moving toward it or away from it?” Butler found that the students who were prepared through the quiz performed significantly better than those with extra study time.
Mindful of the research and our own practical experience, we’ve integrated testing into MindEdge’s online learning content. We employ diagnostic pre-tests, quizzes, short answer questions, “write to learn” exercises, educational games, and comprehensive tests—with a special focus on providing learners with meaningful feedback. We think this approach represents pedagogical best practice—as long as testing is thoughtfully designed to support learning objectives.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders