Why we need more tests (and 4 ways to do them better)

Testing has been unfairly demonised – it doesn’t have to be high-stakes or distressing, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Testing gets a bad press - but if it is done in the right way, it brings huge benefits, writes Mark Enser

It is a commonly held belief that there is too much testing in our education system.

Testing is often identified as a cause of poor mental health in children and a source of stress among teachers.

But I would like to take the somewhat heretical line that testing has been unfairly demonised and that we should embrace the benefits it can bring.

Quick read: A simple five-point checklist for planning

Quick listen: GCSEs: what has been the impact of the shift to linear exams?

Want to know more? Let’s get creative about the knowledge-rich classroom

In "Ten Benefits of Testing and their Application to Educational Practice", researchers found that testing pupils (and pupils testing themselves) had far-reaching benefits that went beyond simply assessing their performance.

Many of the benefits they discuss could fall under a broad category known as the “testing effect”; the idea that testing is not purely a neutral act to find out what has been learned but an intrinsic part of the learning process.

When pupils are tested on things they have previously studied, they have to use recall skills. 

This boosts retrieval strength and makes it easier to recall again in the future. In other words, testing helps to prevent forgetting. This learning is what Karpicke and Grimaldi call "meaningful learning". It can be applied to new contexts and isn’t purely a rote response to a learned cue.

more tests

This testing effect also leads to improved learning in subsequent lessons, in part because pupils can relate what they are now learning to what they have recalled about previous lessons. 

They can use what came before to make sense of what comes next.

For example, pupils might be tested on their knowledge of development indicators and then find it easier to learn about the impacts of natural hazards on low-income countries as they will be using these terms and ideas.

"Ten Benefits of Testing and their Application to Educational Practice" also suggests certain metacognitive benefits of testing, relating to pupils’ understanding of how they learn. Researchers suggest that testing allows pupils to identify gaps in their knowledge, which can be invaluable.  

More testing could make exams less stressful

Testing also allows pupils to reflect on what they have learned and identify links between different topics that may be harder to see while immersed in the relentless forward motion of a scheme of work.

It can also spark motivation for independent study and offer a reason for learning rather than simply completing the work.

Testing should also provide useful information to teachers. We can identify what has been learned and then respond to this. We can find out what we need to reteach, or if we need to change the way we approach a particular topic.

It’s easy to look through a pupil’s book, see the work there, and assume it has been learned, but it’s not until we test it that we find out if that is the case.

What of the argument that testing causes stress in our young people? Research by Smith, Floerke and Thomas found that using retrieval practice (self-testing) helped to combat the impacts of stress in an exam. So more testing could make exams less stressful. 

We should be taking advantage of the testing effect in our classrooms and asking pupils to spend more time reflecting on what they have learned and less time hurtling through the curriculum.

The problem isn’t with tests but rather with the high-stakes accountability that has accompanied them.

In our classrooms, we can keep the stakes low and the benefits high by:

Using quizzes at the start of lessons. Put 10 questions on one slide and the answers on the next. Pupils can mark their own work and don’t need to worry about how their results appear to anyone else.

Setting homework tasks where pupils have to test their knowledge and understanding of previous topics rather than the ones they are currently studying.

Teaching pupils about the benefits of low-stakes testing and highlighting the increased confidence it will lead to. Teach them effective study habits so that they can enjoy the stress-lowering benefits of the testing effect.

Building testing into the curriculum. Plan to very deliberately connect topics together so that pupils have to use what they learned in the past to support what they are doing now.

You will be able to see what has stuck, and respond, and they will be able to identify gaps in their knowledge. All without a higher-stakes assessment.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories