Thursday, March 3, 2016

Teach With the Test

Thanks to my current reading, I’ve developed a whole new perspective on testing.  I’m not talking about THE TEST particularly, but even that has been reframed in my mind.  What I am thinking of is more like what we usually call a quiz, but it is really quite structured.

It turns out that we forget a great deal of what we learn, 70% - 80% in the first two weeks, if we don’t do something with it to make learning more permanent.  When we retrieve previous learning, we strengthen the neural connections that make up that knowledge or skill.  Conversely, when we make no effort to retrieve a particular learning, the neural connections weaken and atrophy.  Research has shown that if we test ourselves over a series of intervals about knowledge that we wish to make permanent, the memory gets stronger and more resistant to loss.  Simply rereading the material has little effect.  It’s the recall effort that’s important.

So, if we want our students to really learn what we’re teaching, it’s important to quiz them on the material more than once, or, if the students are older, teach them how to test themselves on material that they’re supposed to be learning.  Actually, it’s quite easy to see how this works.  For example, a pilot has a huge amount of knowledge and skills that must be immediately available for both routine and emergency operation of an airplane.  Modern pilots spend a huge amount of time practicing in simulators, in essence, quizzing them on the skills that they must have at their immediate command.  They must certify and re-certify that they have command of those skills.  So it is with doctors, surgeons, race car drivers, and even baseball hitters.  The need for immediate unconscious response is the same.  Flash cards are a good example in education.

In the classroom, such quizzing in math might take the form of 4-5 problems given daily which probe both recent and slightly more distant lesson material.  I can picture giving the quiz, having students trade papers, quickly checking the work, then asking the pair to get together on any missed problems with the teacher available if the pair can’t figure out and correct errors.  In language arts, such quizzing might focus on simple skills, like writing complete sentences or demonstrating comprehension of a passage, repeated over and over again to make them habit.  The goal would particularly be to make foundation learning skills automatic.  It turns out that it’s quite impossible to think creatively until one has a background of knowledge and skills with which to create.  Testing can help students retrieve those skills and knowledge when they need them.

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