Saturday, September 13, 2014

Taking Tests

Is flunking good for the soul as well as for the grade?
This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-­science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.

That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward...

Yet another species of exam collapse is far more common. These are the cases in which we open the test and see familiar questions on material we’ve studied, perhaps even stuff we’ve highlighted with yellow marker: names, ideas, formulas we could recite easily only yesterday. And still we lay an egg, scoring average or worse.

Why does this happen? Psychologists have studied learning long enough to have an answer, and typically it’s not a lack of effort (or of some elusive test-taking gene). The problem is that we have misjudged the depth of what we know. We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook.
Sounds to me like justifications for homework or weekly quizzes.   But it's not, not quite.  Pretesting is really what's key:
Bjork’s experiment suggests that pretesting serves to prime the brain, predisposing it to absorb new information. Scientists have several theories as to how this happens. One is fairly obvious: Students get a glimpse from a pretest of the teacher’s hand, of what they’ll be up against. That’s in the interest of not just students but of teachers, too. You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material: How they incorporate all those definitions into a working narrative about a topic that gives them confidence in judging what’s important and what’s less so. These are not easy things to communicate, even for the best teachers. You can’t download such critical thinking quickly, hard as you might try. But you can easily give a test with questions that themselves force that kind of hierarchical thinking. “Taking a practice test and getting wrong answers seems to improve subsequent study, because the test adjusts our thinking in some way to the kind of material we need to know,” Bjork said.
And there might even be a place for the much-maligned multiple-choice test!
A second possibility has to do with the concept of fluency. Wrong guesses expose our fluency illusions, our false impression that we “know” the capital of Eritrea because we just saw it or once studied it. A test, if multiple-choice, forces us to select the correct answer from a number of possibilities that also look plausible. “Let’s say you’re pretty sure that Australia’s capital is Canberra,” Robert A. Bjork, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork’s husband and a leading learning scientist, said. “O.K., that seems easy enough. But when the exam question appears, you see all sorts of other possibilities — Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide — and suddenly you’re not so sure. If you’re studying just the correct answer, you don’t appreciate all the other possible answers that could come to mind or appear on the test.” Pretesting operates as a sort of fluency vaccine.
I like the conclusion:
Many teachers complain that a focus on testing limits their ability to fully explore subjects with their students. Others attack tests as woefully incomplete measures of learning, blind to all varieties of creative thinking.

But the emerging study of pretesting flips that logic on its head. “Teaching to the test” becomes “learning to understand the pretest,” whichever one the teacher chooses to devise. The test, that is, becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.
Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for the article link.


maxutils said...

In general, I don't believe it's that useful to spend time teaching people that they don't know what they're doing ... questions a bout a novel they've never read, or a mathematical concept they have never seen ... but one case where I do love it is in economics ... I give a test, no grade of course, that is true/false explain ... all tha answers appear to be true ... then through the course they are all disproved ...

Darren said...

Perhaps you should read the article again.

maxutils said...

No, I'm pretty sure I got it ... I just disagree in general. Abstract concepts ... maybe. but anything concrete? Why bother?

Darren said...

I don't know, maybe for the reason mentioned in the article?

maxutils said...

With which I disagree ... articles are not proof, and studies can be conflicted. I have never agreed with asking a student a question, on test or in class, that they have no reasonable chance of answering. Maybe the study is correct ... but I would never do it. I'd rather have that time to teach the material well. I do agree that letting students know what they are in for is a good idea.