A Surprising Test Result

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

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