“A curious peculiarity of our memory is that things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition. I mean that in learning (by heart, for example), when we almost know the piece, it pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again. If we recover the words in the former way, we shall probably know them the next time; if in the latter way, we shall very likely need the book once more.”
– William James, 1890
I will be the first to admit it. I was a testing hater. When I first started teaching graduate level courses at the University of Central Florida I wanted to “test” the system and ban the information recall kind of evaluation in my classroom. I felt that it promoted memorization, was a lazy way to assess learning, and kinda made me less cool. So I assigned more group assignments, research projects, writing assignments, and other kinds of assessments of learning. Of course these all have their merits and I will continue to use them. But I have started to learn that a class without come recall assessment promotes laziness a bit.
I teach two courses in the Higher Education program at UCF; Organization and Administration in Higher Education and Policy in Higher Education. Both require a large amount of information on a wide number of topics, theories, and concepts be consumed and hopefully understood and committed to a working memory. And there is a lot of reading that goes on. The Bess and Dee book that I use in Org and Admin is two Harry Potter like volumes because there is a lot to know. Running a university is a complicated business and if you are not up to date on all of the aspects of a modern college it is easy to get lost. Here is where testing comes into play.
When my students get to the next stage of their career they will be tested in the arena of the workplace. While there is not a formal test when these students are in committee meetings and working with students they will need recall not provided by Google to come up with answers and solutions in real time. Testing allows this skill to develop and lessens the reliance on assistance to access a solution. If the student can learn something to the point they can go into their brain and recall it when the pressure is on then there is a good chance they can do it is a staff meeting.
And this is not rote memory either. Tests need to challenge recall without there being a formula. So it needs to provide opportunities for students to show their work either with short answer or in the form of an essay. There also needs to be a wide variety of information tested and plenty of room for mistakes. This is not about punishment but a celebration of learning.
And honestly, there needs to be an opportunity for students to stratify themselves a bit. Testing allows for accomplished students to show themselves and for struggling students to be exposed. This will allow instructors like myself to engage these struggling students and provide additional support and to assess if I am teaching effectively. I don’t think you can do that with a paper or poster session.
And there is good science to back me up on this. Cognitive Psychologist Henery Roediger of Washington University notes a number of benefits when the brain is tested on “formative assessments.” At the 2012 Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning he outlined ten benefits of testing students routinely. They were;
- Testing aids later retention.
- Testing identifies gaps in knowledge.
- Testing causes students to learn more from the next learning episode.
- Testing produces better organization of knowledge.
- Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new concepts.
- Testing can facilitate retrieval of information that was not tested.
- Testing improves metacognitive monitoring.
- Testing prevents interference from prior material when learning new material.
- Testing provides feedback to instructors.
- Frequent testing encourages students to study
So the days of the test free class are over. I know I will take a few hits on my evaluation and this will cause stress levels to rise but I also think it will make me a better instructor. If I know my students will need to recall this information then I need to insure that I am teaching it well, with clarity, and intentionally. I believe that I will find that while I always felt I was a good teacher, this will make me a great teacher. So students, sharpen your pencils, put away your books and notes, and get ready for a little test. We will all be better for it.