By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
In a recent post, Mel Riddile wrote that research has shown that more testing can result in improved learning. Such an assertion would appear to be misguided in an educational world where the phrases “teaching to the test”, “barrier exams” and “value-added evaluations” have taken on extremely negative connotations. But the discussion here is not about NCLB or AYP issues. This study is advocating the benefits of frequent and systematic testing throughout a course.
Dr. Riddile begins by posing these questions:
“Recent research may help school leaders with two important challenges that they face on a daily basis. First, in these tight budget times with fewer teachers, larger classes, and fewer resources, how do we improve student performance? How do we do more with less? What are some no-cost ways that we can improve our schools?
“Second, given the complexity of course content, particularly in high schools, how do we enhance our skills as instructional leaders? How do we give meaningful feedback to teachers that will enhance their instruction even though we may have little or no background knowledge regarding the content of the course? For example, how do we give feedback to a world language teacher when we have never studied the language and cannot understand a single word they said in the lesson?”
A surprising answer
The study that was summarized in Science magazine and reported in a New York Times article titled To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test quantitatively demonstrated that when compared to a variety of teaching strategies, students who are tested frequently on recent material retain the information at significantly higher levels. First, a confession
This is not the first time I have broached this topic. I once did a school in-service entitled “A Quiz a Day” and more than a year ago I shared those thoughts in a blog on this site. But advertisers will tell you that in order to have a target audience fully understand a message it has to be heard at least 17 times. Consequently, with that repetitive goal in mind I would like to once again share my thoughts on the value of frequent student assessment.
A consistent approach that works
For forty years I taught high school mathematics. For the last thirty-eight I employed a teaching technique that paralleled the ones endorsed by the studies reviewed in Science. For nearly four decades this innovation affirmatively answered the questions posed in Mel Riddile’s blog. 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
Virtually 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
The 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, the students would take a quiz. 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 introducing the next topic which would be then practiced in a homework assignment. The next class would be structured in the same manner. By utilizing this schedule every topic was discussed in varying formats 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
. 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 on to something.
Mel Riddile’s closing thoughts
I will leave the final conclusions to Dr. Riddile:
“This study emphasizes the critical importance that school wide defined instructional practices, which include frequent checks for understanding, play in the learning process. When the teacher asks students to reflect on the lesson by practicing retrieval and the students receive immediate feedback, learning improves by as much as 50%.”