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27 September 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 11:31am

We should be giving kids more exams, not fewer

In progressive circles, testing now inspires a lot of scepticism, if not outright hostility. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that exams bolster learning in a way that studying can't.

By Ezekiel J Emanuel

This piece was originally published on the New Republic website

In high school, we used to moan about Mr. Koonz’s chemistry class. Every Friday, Mr. Koonz required his students to turn in a worksheet and take a test. Every single Friday. We begged for a break from the constant assessments. But nothing swayed him.

It turns out Mr. Koonz was on to something really important. In progressive circles, testing now inspires a lot of skepticism, if not outright hostility. With so much riding on test scores for both teachers and students, the standardized exams required by No Child Left Behind seem to encourage more cheating than learning. At best, they foster memorization, but at the expense of originality and critical thinking. In the modern era, when information can be more easily—and accurately—Googled than mentally recalled, old-fashioned testing strikes its critics as obsolete. (That is what a bunch of students caught cheating at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School tried arguing.) But it turns out that the right kinds of assessments—frequent, short tests—can actually yield big educational benefits. It’s called the “testing effect,” and policymakers are missing an opportunity by not doing more to take advantage of it.

The problem with the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind—as well as with the SAT, A.P., GMAT, MCAT, bar exam, medical boards, and the rest of the standardized tests undergirding the U.S. credentialing system—is that they’re built on what researchers call the “dipstick” view of assessment. They assume that there’s a fixed amount of knowledge and ability in a student’s head, which the test merely measures. But that’s not what science has shown. Done properly, testing is not inert. Rather, it can be much more like the physical phenomena underlying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In the act of measuring students, you can actually affect how much knowledge they absorb and how well they retain it.

Though it doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention, the research documenting the testing effect goes back nearly 100 years. In one experiment, three groups of high school students were given reading passages to study. The first group did nothing other than go over the material once. The second group studied it two times. The third group was given an initial test on what they’d read. Two weeks later, the students in all three groups were brought back and given an identical quiz. While the group that studied the passages a second time scored better than the group that just studied them once, the students who were initially tested performed best. The results held up when the students sat for follow-ups five months later. The testing had enhanced learning and retention more than just studying.

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A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

A key to triggering the testing effect is timing: The sooner students are tested after encountering new material, the more it sinks in, while waiting just seven days to test students can substantially reduce performances. On the other hand, the more testing a student gets on a given set of more information, the greater the benefits. With the first few tests, students show dramatic gains. With further testing, the positive effects on retention taper off. But surprisingly, there is no plateau. Even after 20 or 30 tests, students’ performances progressively improve with each additional assessment.

As for why all of this happens: No one is entirely sure. The most plausible explanation is that connections between neural cells are the subject of a brutal natural-selection process. When you fail to engage them, they seem to wither away; brain power is a classic case of “use it or lose it.” Because the recall process involved in test-taking requires real mental effort, it bulks up the brain’s neural connections and may force the brain to create multiple, alternative retrieval routes for accessing the same piece of information. Frequent mental struggle strengthens intellectual wiring. This may be why, for all the SAT’s drawbacks, SAT prep courses featuring lots of practice exams can boost vocabulary and math skills—by forcing students to retrieve the information on all those flash cards, they provide helpful mental workouts.

So why isn’t there much more testing in U.S. schools? Teachers’ schedules are one major obstacle. Developing good quiz questions—not to mention grading them—is labor intensive. For the classes I teach at the University of Pennsylvania, it takes me and my co-instructor, aided by our two teaching fellows, about an hour a week to develop just five multiple-choice questions to give our students. Mr. Koonz’s tests were on yellowing sheets of paper that he reused year to year. That time-saving approach now has a significant drawback: In the Internet age, students would just post the questions on the Web, which would tip off other students to exactly what’s being tested, eliminating the organic recall that is key to the testing effect. Today’s teachers would need to develop new test questions each week for each class, but few teachers have that kind of free time.

This piece was originally published on the New Republic website