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Test 'em more - NY Times article and the research on how assessment helps learning

This blog was originally posted on Assessment FOR Learning.

As we at Salem High School have been exploring AFL, we have begun to realize the power of testing students for the purpose of learning. So often we think of assessment as simply giving a traditional test at the end a unit of study for the purpose of determining mastery and calculating a grade. The principles of Assessment FOR Learning would instead lead teachers to assess along the way - to use tests, quizzes, and other assessments as a means to help students learn. Assessment is much more powerful than teachers often realize. It is a learning tool.

Here is how assessment is applied in what I'll call a traditional classroom:

1. Teach Content
2. Practice Content
3. Teach Content
4. Practice Content
5. Assess Mastery of Content
6. Move on to New Content

Here is one example of how assessment could be applied in the AFL classroom:

1. Teach Content
2. Assess Understanding
3. Practice Content
4. Assess Understanding
5. Teach Content
6. Assess Understanding
7. Practice Content
8. Assess Understanding
9. Assess Mastery of Content

A recent NY Times article seems to back up this AFL approach. The article (Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits, Benedict Carey, September 6, 2010) discusses studying content multiple times over a period of days v. cramming. Not surprisingly, several major studies have found that cramming does not work as well, in general, as studying material in multiple chunks over time. But what research is also showing is that the act of taking a test on material actually helps people remember the material for a longer period of time.

I have copied and pasted below an excerpt from the article. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.

Begin Excerpt

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.

“With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring one property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example): “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

Of course, one reason the thought of testing tightens people’s stomachs is that tests are so often hard. Paradoxically, it is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, research suggests. The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget. This effect, which researchers call “desirable difficulty,” is evident in daily life. The name of the actor who played Linc in “The Mod Squad”? Francie’s brother in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? The name of the co-discoverer, with Newton, of calculus?

The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.

End Excerpt

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