by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
There are few lightning rods in the educational landscape of 2011 that rival the debate on the role of testing in the evaluation of student, teacher and school performance. However, another perspective on this topic was addressed in a recent Mel Riddile post which discussed research indicating that frequent testing had a positive impact on learning.
According to Dr. Riddile, “A recent study summarized in Science magazine and reported in a New York Times article titled To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test may be a key to unlocking some keys to the teaching and learning process.” This discussion does not concern the end-of-course barrier exams that are the focal point of most educational conversations. The research revolves around the use of testing within a teacher’s daily lesson planning. The study found “practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborate studying.” As Dr. Riddile notes, “In other words, the simple act of taking a test may improve learning better than any other studying technique including note taking and concept mapping.”
Perhaps the most compelling conclusion noted revolved around the retention of information. “The Times article went on to say, The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods. One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.”
The view from the classroom
For forty years I taught high school mathematics. For the last thirty-eight I employed a teaching technique that paralleled the views expressed in those studies. Whether the subject was General Math, Algebra 1, Algebra 2 or Pre-calculus I created a classroom strategy that was clearly focused on the concept of frequent and consistent testing. It was a plan that was simple and direct.
The centerpiece of the plan
Every class period included a quiz. It always contained relatively simple questions that could be completed in ten to fifteen minutes. Questions would be graded on a “right or wrong” basis with little partial credit involved. It would be the math equivalent of a short-answer, fill-in-the-blanks question. As the previously noted research found, the regular testing of information led to a number of extremely important outcomes. Not only did the students retain the material better, they were also clearly aware of their academic status in the class. A daily evaluation of one’s performance means no one is surprised by their ultimate success or failure. The teacher also benefits from having a barometer of student learning in every class period. A quiz that results in a significant number of poor grades requires more work on the topic. One that indicates overall comprehension allows an educator to move forward with confidence. Since it is critical that these papers be returned the next class meeting, they must be easy to grade. The best utilization of time for the teacher is to be able to grade one set of papers while the next class is taking their quiz.
A systematic approach
My overall classroom strategy was to introduce every topic in three consecutive classes. The daily quiz was a key component of that plan. This approach was used regardless of the level of the math or whether the school utilized a block or non-block schedule. On day 1 a topic would be presented to the students. An explanation of the concept would be followed by examples and then homework would be assigned to give the students practice. Day 2 would begin with a review of the homework. After that review was completed and all questions were answered, a quiz would be given. Designed to cover this one concept, it was based on questions similar to those found on the homework. On day 3 the quiz would be returned and reviewed.
This philosophy was explained in detail to the students on the first day of school. A typical class would be divided into four segments. Part one was returning the quiz from the previous session and discussing any questions. The next segment was reviewing the homework assignment. Often a worksheet would follow to ensure understanding. At the conclusion of that conversation the class was given a quiz. The fourth and final element of the period was devoted to the next topic which would be then practiced in a homework assignment. The next class would be structured in the same manner. By following this schedule every topic was discussed in three consecutive classes.
It sounds so boring
Obviously, such a highly-structured approach could be a formula for boredom. Though the basic plan never changed, the challenge for the teacher was to create variety within the segments. On some occasions I would have my “A” students write the quiz solutions on the board. An “A” student was anyone who received a grade of “A” on that particular quiz. Students quickly perceived this opportunity as an “honor” and since all students at one time or another would have a perfect paper I would take care throughout the year to have as many different students as possible receive this recognition. It was stunning to watch otherwise sophisticated 18-year-olds become giddy when they had a chance to demonstrate their math prowess. On other occasions, I would personally focus on any problem that was missed by a significant number of students.
The review of the homework was also approached in different ways. Volunteers would be solicited on some occasions; other times students were assigned problems. A third option would have me do the work. The practice worksheets could be presented as individual work, group projects, contests, or puzzles. The outcome was always the same—practice—but the methods would vary from day to day.
The introduction of the new topic would also be open to a variety of educational strategies. Lecture, group discovery, question-answer and any other method available would be employed on different occasions.
Students love structure
People are most comfortable when they have a familiar routine. When students feel comfortable in a class they become more confident. By the end of the first week of school, my students understood the process and knew what to expect each day. There were no surprises. At the end of every year I would give my students the opportunity to complete an anonymous evaluation of the course. When asked for the aspect that contributed the most to their success, the daily quiz was selected more often than all of the other options combined.
The sincerest form of flattery
Over the course of my career a number of teachers adopted my “daily quiz” approach to teaching. These individuals taught in courses all across the curriculum. Many reported not only improved learning but also better communication in terms of student performance. My wife, an associate Biology professor at a junior college, has successfully used the same strategy with her students.
Clearly from my perspective those research studies are truly on to something.