), Lindsey E Richland et al found that even when students bombed on a test before studying the topic, they still learned more effectively in the long term.
The evidence suggests that tests can prime students for learning in a positive way. Getting it wrong can tease out initial misconceptions, or guide students towards the ideas they need to remember when they come to a given topic.
There are, of course, hurdles to overcome in this approach. The mere mention of testing will trigger fear and loathing in many teachers. Under the all-seeing eye of an inspection body that seeks rapid progress, the idea of students struggling on a pre-test seems unacceptable. But there are benefits to "learning ugly" and we must share and communicate these better.
Another consideration is that such an approach could potentially lead students to feel they're failures. To counter this, teachers must gain the trust of their classes and explain the benefits of what they're doing. We can, and must, recharacterise failure and struggle as essential elements of progress, because they are fundamental prerequisites for effective and memorable learning.
Here are three strategies to get you started on using testing as a tool for learning:
1 Take the pre-test
As already stated, a pre-test can be extremely effective. However, you have to ensure that it's used positively. Follow up the test by identifying the gaps in students' understanding, giving them precise feedback on their misconceptions and using this assessment to plan meaningful future study.
You can also fix any potential damage to pupils' self-confidence by highlighting how far they've moved on from the pre-test as you progress through a topic.
2 Questions, questions
Assessing your students' understanding needn't look or feel like a test. It can easily be transformed into an active process, in which the pupils ask the questions.
Once more the "testing effect" is harnessed at the beginning of the learning process. Introduce the topic to be studied and then get students to come up with questions about it.
The crucial next step involves pupils organising the questions coherently. You could have a question wall to help them find patterns in what they've asked and to categorise their questions according to different criteria - which one was asked most often, for example.
The final step is to get students to answer the questions and share their understanding. This process highlights prior knowledge and enables you to modify planning and teach more effective lessons.
3 My favourite mistake
Back in 1998, Sheryl Crow sang about her "favourite mistake". Which of her famous ex-boyfriends is the subject of the tune is unclear, but you can harness inspiration from this pop gem when giving purposeful feedback on tests. Whether it is a past exam question or a weekly quiz, draw attention to your students' misconceptions by making errors visible.
There are a variety of tools for doing this. Circulating the room and selecting your favourite mistake is a lo-fi option. Getting students to write their own mistakes on cue cards or whiteboards works just as well.
For the technologically minded, displaying a mistake on a visualiser for the whole class to see - and then exploring the misconception - does the trick brilliantly. You can unpick the error and right the wrong.
This can have the doubly positive impact of normalising struggle and failure as necessary steps in the learning process, while clarifying the most common misconceptions being made by our students.
Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York. You can find him on Twitter @huntingenglish