The Power of Testing (?)

This post explores the power of testing in the classroom from the perspective of a new teacher in our Science department. Regular testing is useful for more than just measuring progress: it’s also an important learning tool. Find out more below.  

Data data data…

Starting out in September with 11 different classes and over 150 new faces is a daunting prospect for any new teacher. The biggest issue comes with the first progress checks and the requirement to assess how your pupils are doing. You must learn to do this very quickly despite having limited data. It can be scary clicking the ‘save’ button on your first progress check, worrying whether you’ve been too lenient with grades or too strict. The last thing you want is your subject standing out as the one a child is not progressing in. Keeping test data on each child gives me the confidence to justify why a certain grade has been given. Therefore, I feel there is a need to regularly test pupils, probably more than the average teacher.

How often should we test?

There are many positives and negatives to testing pupils regularly, but what do I mean by regularly? Each lesson, every two lessons, every month?

Obviously this is something that changes with every teacher and subject, making it difficult for pupils to get into a routine and know what to expect from assessments.

I have been trying out different ways of assessing my pupils and I will give you an insight into how it has gone with my Year 12 class.

I decided to test my pupils at the end of every sub topic (usually every 1-2 lessons). Pupils have the time in between lessons to revise for these tests and they usually come well prepared. These tests are made up of past paper questions on a topic they have just covered. They are then peer or self-assessed straight after the pupils have finished. The assessments were time consuming to begin with whilst pupils were getting used to using the mark schemes, however the time has reduced with both the actual test and subsequent marking now only taking about 20 minutes.

Positives of frequent testing:

These are positives I feel have come with this form of testing:

  • Pupils’ anxiety towards testing improves as they get used to silent conditions. Pupils are constantly stuck to their mobile phones and usually have music on when working outside of the classroom. Generally, pupils are only exposed to silence in exam conditions making it an abnormal experience for them.
  • Time management has improved. By giving pupils exposure to testing this regularly, I’ve found that they are able to manage their time more efficiently, getting used to working in silence and concentrating for a set amount of time.
  • Pupils’ understanding of key terminology has improved, such as ‘describe/explain/state’, making it less likely for them to lose marks for ‘silly’ mistakes by not understanding what the question is looking for.

Studies have found that testing improves the retention of information and can reduce the effect of the “forgetting curve” (see below) more than just revising the information (Larson et al. 2009).

Curve of Forgetting

  • Pupils have a better understanding of what they need to learn with regards to the daunting amount of content. As pupils are self and peer assessing their work, they start to see the patterns of what content is expected for each question and they can review what they have missed. I find this feedback much more beneficial than trying to explain to pupils what they need to do. Instead I spend more time explaining to pupils what they can do to achieve the improvements.

 

There are plenty of articles that are telling pupils they are revising incorrectly if they are just revisiting content material. Yes, revising has its place and pupils need to be familiar with the content before they are expected to answer any questions. I read a great analogy that ‘Footballers train for a match by practising the skills they need and you shouldn’t study for an exam by never testing yourself on writing full answers in exam conditions’. My pupils have a habit of creating beautiful revision tools, often creative with lots of different colours, but spend very little time doing practice questions themselves. I always try to explain the importance of spending more time on this and for any test. Pupils need to practise exactly the thing they’ll be required to do. As you can see from this graph below, studies have shown that by doing practice tests you have a much better chance of gaining a better overall result than just “restudying”.

Practice vs Restudy

I’ve explained the positives in terms of the pupils’ perspective, but what about for me as the teacher? I have found it’s made my teaching life easier in some ways:

  • Data – A great advantage of this testing is that I have a large Excel sheet full of data on each pupil. This makes parents’ evenings easy as I’m able to point out the key topics they have not done so well on. I also found that printing this off for each pupil once we’ve finished the curriculum allows them to have a revision list and they can see what they need to focus on. I was able to see on the whole which topics I needed to cover during revision lessons.
  • Reduced marking with lots of feedback. The constant peer and self assessment of these tests means that the pupils are receiving instant feedback for content and they are able to make improvements straight away. This means I do not have to mark all these tests myself (adding to my already large workload). By allowing pupils to wait for teacher feedback every few lessons, we are letting the pupils continue with content when they may have a lack of understanding in areas.

Negatives of frequent testing:

The marks that pupils achieve in the short term tests are relatively high as they are only being tested on the topic they have just learnt. This is great for pupils to gain confidence in answering questions, however I have found that pupils can get complacent and think that because they have got a good grade in that topic they don’t need to do so much work when it comes to revising it later on.

 

The other issue is that as a result of pupils doing tests on topics they have only just learnt this means their grades are going to be better than their overall predicted grades as they are dealing with a small amount of content for each test. When it came to my pupils being tested in February on something they learnt in September, they did not do as well and this can lead to them getting frustrated with their predicted grades being much lower than the marks they get on the short tests.

 

The ideal situation would be that pupils test themselves outside of the classroom and then the lessons could be used to help with any issues they have. However, I know that the majority of pupils in my class would not do the required practice needed and with the ALPS scores always on my mind, I’m not comfortable with trusting them with this responsibility…. yet.

If anybody has any ideas or would like to share their experiences of how to improve the use of assessment in the classroom then don’t hesitate to get in touch or leave a comment below.



Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

 

Larsen, D. P., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Repeated testing improves long‐term retention relative to repeated study: a randomised controlled trial. Medical education, 43(12), 1174-1181.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s