As teachers, most of us have been taught that tests are the best way to assess our students’ learning (and the effectiveness of our teaching). But when a student scores poorly on a test, how does he or she benefit? The student loses confidence and ends up feeling ‘stupid.’ I believe we can use tests to improve learning, not just check what our students have memorized.
I recently attended a conference where the speaker, Thomas Guskey, challenged us to consider how we might change the culture of classroom testing. Guskey asked, “What happens to these tests? What educational purpose do they serve?” His point was that teachers typically grade tests, give them back, and then move on. Students put their tests away and never look at them again. Some students will even make a show of sauntering to the trash to crumple and toss their test in the bin. If a student feels like she studied hard for a test and still got a bad grade, she can become disillusioned and disheartened with the classroom cycle that consists of teaching and testing, teaching and testing.
Many times, testing simply feels like a win or lose game between students and their teacher. I’ll never forget the day my son and I were discussing testing in one of his least favorite classes (and with his least favorite teacher) and he looked me square in the eyes and said, “Mom, I refuse to play the game.” My son was in honors classes, yet he felt this way! What if his tests were used as a learning tool instead of a ‘gotcha’? Would it be perceived as less of a game if students had a chance to retake the test, or work out where they’d gone wrong?
There is an argument for the exam as the final assessment: if students don’t have the knowledge by the time they’re tested, that’s unfortunate, but it’s time to move on – there’s only so much time to teach the material. “What about a surgeon? Do they ‘test’ their learning on a genuine patient?” Guskey asked. “Or do they get to check their learning on a cadaver to make sure they’ve got it worked out?” You wouldn’t show a surgeon a heart bypass in a textbook and then send him or her straight into the operating room!
Tests give us crucial insight into areas where students are struggling. By moving on immediately after giving an exam, we’re missing a valuable opportunity to teach our students exactly what they need to learn! Rather than a game in which students either win or lose, we can turn testing into a win-win classroom experience by giving students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We can change the culture in our classrooms by using tests as a tool to facilitate learning rather than marking the end of the learning process.
I saw a fantastic example of this type of assessment when I was coaching teachers at Odessa High School in Texas. Two teachers were co-teaching a science class. For the first part of the lesson, students took a typical test that the co-teachers quickly graded as they were turned in (while the students were engaged in another task). From the test, they picked up ‘grey areas’ where a significant number of students had struggled and ‘failed’. Then they spent the second part of the class period re-teaching these ‘grey’ elements. Students were then allowed to re-take this part of the test where, of course, they improved. Rather than feeling disillusioned, students felt empowered and motivated to ‘learn from their mistakes’.
As I was considering Guskey’s points, I reflected on my own experiences. When I was in graduate school, the method of learning was an iterative process, where we continually redrafted our work until it was up to standard. There was no formal testing, but the same piece of work would sometimes be returned six or seven times with feedback. I would read the professor’s comments and learn how to improve my work – no disillusionment, just improvements. I learned more than I had in any test-driven educational program, and I actually remembered what I’d learned.
The next time you’re preparing a test, consider how you might make it into a learning tool. You may be surprised to find that you can turn your tests into a positive learning experience for all of your students.
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