Exams As Study Aids

‘Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing”

The September 7, 2014 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Education Issue, has several very interesting and provocative articles.  Benedict Carey writes “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing,” an article adapted from his book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens,” from Random House.  In this adaptation, Carey makes references to prior research on learning and on the effect of testing on the ability of learners to remember information.  Several important aspects of testing as tools for learning have been known for some time.

Wrong answers on pretests, for example, “. . . change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions.  On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit form answering incorrectly, by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.”

In support of his claim that educators have understood this principle for many years, he quotes Francis Bacon, who said in 1620, “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.”  And with greater, more scientific support, he cites research in 1916 by Arthur Gates who, working with schoolchildren, established the most efficient ratio for introducing reciting to reading–spend 40 percent of the time reading.  Others have continued in this line of study and looked at how different study patterns contributed to long-term memory.  This kind of work contributed to a greater understanding of the testing effect, as it is know today.

Carey makes clear that pretesting on a topic entirely foreign to the student, like Chinese, “could be a wash, because the notation and characters are entirely alien. But pretesting in subject areas where “unfamiliar concepts are at least embedded in language we can parse” appears to be useful.

As a strong supporter of formative assessment, I find this research (and would likely find the full book) very useful.  Good formative assessment techniques use frequent tests to measure student understanding of carefully designed and segmented lessons.  Test feedback is immediate to the learner, and should be clear enough for the learner to understand the source of errors and the direction of new learning required for future success.  As this article concludes:  ” ‘Teaching to the test’ becomes ‘learning to understand the pretest,’ whichever one the teacher chooses to devise.  The test, that is, becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a judgment on what they did not.”  These are wonderful insights, and should be passed on to those in charge of the abysmal Race to the Top testing mania that has swept across the nation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *