Testing, testing, one two, one two … “There’ll be a test next week.”

The above sentence contains the word that many students dread. A test?, they might think. What a waste of time! We should be doing something useful instead, like getting on with learning new stuff. Not only that, but my score will be recorded and put on my next report. My parents will see. My classmates will see. Other teachers will see. The universities I’m applying to will see. Everyone will see. I don’t want to do a test!

Is it any wonder that many students don’t like tests? They view a test as a high-stakes tool of assessment, with little benefit for their long-term learning. Teachers too may not relish the idea of taking the time to put a test together, possibly seeing it solely as an exercise in finding out what students have learnt so far and nothing more. Yet there is a wealth of research that finds that – far from a test simply being a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time – the very act of being tested itself can produce significant improvements to a student’s long-term learning. One reason is due to the Retrieval Effect.

“Repeated studying after learning had no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produced a large positive effect.” ‘The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning’,  Karpicke & Roediger, (2008)

The Retrieval Effect has been widely replicated in many studies. The thinking is that by forcing students to actively retrieve information from their memories, their understanding of that information is strengthened. Important details are noticed and linked to their other pre-existing knowledge to form a cohesive structure in their long-term memory. What’s more, active testing and retrieval does this in a way that passively reading a textbook or studying notes just does not.

But it doesn’t end there. There are plenty more reasons why testing has been shown to be beneficial for long-term learning. In the 2011 paper ‘Ten Benefits of Testing and their Applications to Educational Practice’ by Roediger et al, some of the conclusions made were as follows:

  • Testing provides useful feedback to instructors, and to students.
    • Both the teacher and the student has a much clearer idea of any gaps in the student’s knowledge – if the student wasn’t able to retrieve the required information in a test, more work needs to be done.
  • Frequent testing encourages students to study.
    • If students know they’ll be tested frequently, they’re more likely to adopt more effective, long-term revision strategies.
  • Testing can facilitate retrieval of material that was not tested.
    • When a student is faced with a question in a test, they need to determine which pieces of their knowledge are relevant. This often requires them to recall other non-tested but related material in order that they can select the appropriate way to answer the question.

But tests are scary! How well I do in them affects all kinds of things, like my predicted grades for university applications. My test scores will be recorded and put on reports too. So I still don’t want to do a test!

Testing doesn’t have to be so high stakes. Test scores don’t always have to be formally recorded. There’s usually no need for a student to share their scores with anybody except their class teacher – and that’s if a score is given at all. For the most part, classmates, parents and other teachers don’t need to be told anything. Sure, there may be the occasional need for more formal assessments to be carried out throughout the year, but in the main testing can be very low-stakes. In fact, there’s no reason to even call them ‘tests’ at all – perhaps the term ‘quiz’ has less anxiety-inducing connotations.

At my school, every student has timetabled slots outside of their regular lessons where they sit down by themselves and do an hour-long test. One test for each subject they’re studying, every week. Only, they’re not called tests. Instead we call them Formative Assessments (FA’s for short) – the terminology is intended to reduce the anxiety that the word ‘test’ may cause. Students are told that each FA is intended solely to help them learn and consolidate the course material, and doing it is not intended to be stressful. They won’t usually be given a numerical mark or a grade for this work, and they should have the opportunity to discuss anything they found hard during regular class time.

In my own classes, I have found that students are typically quite relaxed about doing their weekly FA. Whilst some of them may still be a little unhappy if they don’t do as well as they’d like to, the low-stakes nature of the tests means that they’re far less likely to try and hide their mistakes, which in turn means that I’m in a better position to support their learning. Students have told me that FA’s help them identify topics they’re good at and, perhaps more importantly, topics that they need to go away and do some more work on. In addition, because FAs happen so frequently for them, they’re really not seen as a big deal, so there’s very little anxiety associated with them.

If you want your students to learn, test them, and test them frequently.

I am extremely grateful to Craig Barton for writing his wonderful and hugely insightful book How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, which introduced me to the research surrounding the benefits of testing and many other things besides. Much of this article is based on the contents of that book. I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly for teachers of secondary mathematics.


This article was written by Alan Theobald, Senior Tutor for Mathematics, Bath Academy

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