In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice
Tests are staple of teaching life, but are they simply tools of assessment used to rank students and measure progress, or are they beneficial in other ways? Let’s find out.
What does the research say?
As Roediger III et al (2011a) explain, the 'testing effect' is the finding that long-term memory and the retention of knowledge is improved by active retrieval through testing, rather than passive reading. This means, therefore, that regularly testing pupils’ knowledge in class may contribute positively to their learning.
However, the content and format of in-class tests is vital. Bjork’s theory of disuse (2011) states that allowing students time to reflect on topics before testing helps to increase the storage strength of their memories. Assessments that include a variety of topics taught previously throughout the year will be most beneficial to learners.
Furthermore, in-class quizzes do not need to match the format of critical tests in order for pupils to benefit from the testing effect (McDermott et al, 2014). Rather than being filled with multi-mark exam exercises, assessments can contain a selection of multiple-choice or short-answer questions - which are far easier to mark!
It’s been proven that there are multiple benefits to testing pupils, including a better organisation of knowledge and the highlighting of gaps in their understanding. However, it’s also important to acknowledge the disadvantages. Not only do tests take a lot of time to make and mark, but many students have negative associations with high-stakes testing, resulting in maths anxiety (Ashcraft, 2002).
That said, the power of the testing effect is due to retrieval, not from grades, ranks or reams of detailed feedback; testing does not have to be high stakes. Regularly presenting students with no-fuss short quizzes may be the best way to get all of the aforementioned benefits with fewer of the associated costs. Some pupils may even come to enjoy them!
So should we have any stakes at all when testing pupils? Well, according to TeachFirst researcher Nick Rose, some stakes are better than none. In order to learn from testing, students need to put in the required effort. If there are no consequences, there’s a very real danger that not all pupils will fully apply themselves. Occasionally engaging in activities such as peer-marking is an effective way of marginally increasing the stakes without adding to learners’ maths anxiety.
Tests are not only tools of assessment, but tools of learning, and the finding that active retrieval improves the storage strength of knowledge is argument enough for making tests a regular part of lessons.
However, assessments do not always have to be high stakes in nature. Instead, regularly checking pupils’ understanding with low-stakes tests might actually be beneficial in reducing their maths anxiety, as well as helping to save lesson time and lighten your marking load. A steady diet of ten-minute quizzes throughout the week may have a significant effect on learning!