What if I told you about this magical teaching practice that, done even once, produces large improvements in student final exam scores, helps narrow the grade gap between poorly prepped and highly prepped first year college students, and might even result in more positive course reviews,? What if I also told you this magical teaching practice is something you already know how to do? What if I told you, the secret to increasing your students’ success and overall satisfaction is……more TESTS!?
Okay…well to be fair, it’s a little more nuanced than that. While adding just one test to a class does indeed improve final exam scores, it turns out that more frequent, graded exercises in general improve learning outcomes for students ,. Even better – if these exercises are low stakes, they can improve learning outcomes without increasing student anxiety ,.
We often view testing as an unpleasant but necessary way to assess student performance. It may be time for us to instead view testing as a useful teaching tool and to implement an assessment system that maximizes the potential learning benefits. In this post I will discuss the important known benefits of frequent, low stakes assessments as well as some practical tips for how to maximize these benefits without adding undue stress to your life or the lives of your students.
Benefit #1: “Thinking about thinking”
Testing can improve a student’s metacognition, or their ability to “think about thinking.” A good metacognitive thinker understands how their thought processes work and can pay attention to and change these processes . A student with strong metacognitive skills can therefore more successfully monitor, evaluate, and improve their learning compared to students lacking these skills. Unfortunately, many students struggle with metacognition and must contend with “illusions of mastery” (or thinking they understand a subject better than they actually do). Self-testing is a good way to prevent illusions of mastery, but many students do not incorporate self-testing into their studying, instead electing more passive modes of exam preparation such as rereading texts. Incorporating more testing into the curriculum forces students into the position of making mistakes and receiving feedback, allowing them to frequently measure their learning in relation to expectations and adjust accordingly. Again, note that providing feedback is an essential part of this process.
Benefit #2: Practice Remembering
Testing can improve a student’s long term memory of information presented in class by forcing students to recall what they’ve learned through a cognitive process called active retrieval. Active retrieval strengthens neural pathways important for retrieving memories, allowing these memories to be more easily accessed in the future.
While any sort of retrieval practice is useful, it is most beneficial when it is effortful, spaced, and interleaved. An example of effortful retrieval practice includes testing which forces students to provide the answers (i.e. Short answer and fill in the blank questions as opposed to multiple choice). More effortful retrieval also occurs with spaced and interleaved practice.
Spaced practice is testing that occurs after enough time has elapsed for some (but not complete) forgetting to occur (i.e. Present the information and then wait a couple months, days, or even just until the end of class to test students on it). Interleaved practice incorporates different but related topics and problem types, as opposed to having students practice and master one type at a time (e.g. cumulative testing where you mix problems from different units together). Interleaved practice can help students learn to focus on the underlying principles of problems and to discriminate between problem types, leading to more complex mental models and a deeper understanding of the relationships between ideas.
How to Implement More Assessments (Without Losing Your Mind)
So, all you have to do now is come up with a ton of quiz and test questions and free up a bunch of class time for assessments! Don’t forget you also need to grade all of these! After all, feedback is an important part of the process, and frequent (even low stakes) grading has the added benefits of enhancing student motivation, attentiveness, and attendance.I know what you busy teachers (ie. all of you) out there are thinking….“Your ”magical” teaching practice is starting to sound like a hugely effective pain in my butt.”
Don’t give up on me now though! There are some fairly simple ways to add more assessments to your curriculum. Furthermore, you should be able to do this sans student rebellion because these assessments are low-stakes. Frequent, low-stake assessments as opposed to infrequent, high-stakes assessments actually decrease student anxiety overall because no single test is a make it or break it event. In fact, several teachers have reported a large increase in positive student evaluations after restructuring their classes in this way,,!
Below I lay out some tips for getting the most out of shifting your assessment practices while maintaining both your own and your students’ sanity:
1) Know that “effortful” testing is not always necessary
While effortful testing is best for retrieval practice, even basic, easily graded recognition tests such multiple choice questions still offer benefits, such as helping students remember basic (but important!) information,.
2) Create different assessment questions
You can also make assessments more effortful by creating questions that engage higher cognitive processes. Now you can sit back, relax, and indulge in one of my personal favorite pastimes (watching student brains explode) without the stressful grading!
3) Make use of educational technologies to ease your grading
For instance, clicker tests are a quick way to test students and allow you to provide feedback for the class all at once.
4) Make assessments into games
If your students need a morale boost, make a quiz into a trivia game and give winning groups candy. Some good old competition and Pavlovian conditioning may make students reassess their view of testing.
5) Assess participation
Doing something as simple as a participation grade will still provide students with incentive without overburdening them or yourself. For instance, this type of grading would work in conjunction with #3.
6) Keep graded assessments predictable
Making assessments predictable as opposed to utilizing pop quizzes helps students feel at ease.6 Furthermore, if they students KNOW an assessment is coming, they are more likely to study and pay attention.
7) Find ways to revisit old material in your assessments
Making assessments cumulative is an effective way to space out your review of material and has the added benefit of making problems interleaved and effortful, all of which maximize retrieval practice.
8) Have students reflect on mistakes
You can help students develop metacognitive skills by giving them opportunities to reflect upon and correct their mistakes on assessments. For instance, have students take a quiz and then discuss their answers/thinking with their classmates before receiving feedback. You can also give students opportunities to create keys to short answer questions and grade their own and several (anonymous) classmates’ answers. This will allow them to think through what makes an answer complete and effective.
9) Break large assessments into small ones
Instead of creating new assessments, break up large ones into multiple, lower-stakes assessments. For example, consider replacing big tests with several quizzes. Consider scaffolding large projects such as independent research projects and term papers. Ask for outlines, lists of references, graphs, etc. along the course of the semester before the final project is due. This might cause more work for you in the short term but can help prevent complete disasters at the end of the semester, which can be time consuming.
10) Utilize short daily or weekly quizzes
If you don’t want to adjust a big project/test or lose class time by adding time-consuming assessments, consider adding short daily or weekly quizzes. These grades can add up to equal one test grade. One could consider dropping the lowest score(s) but allowing no make ups to reduce logistical issues.
These are only a few of the many strategies one can use to transition to a frequent, low-stakes assessment system. What are your experiences with low stakes assessments? Have you made use of any which seem particularly effective in enhancing student learning?
Much of the information about the benefits of testing is from:
Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sarah Jones received her undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University, then spent the summer of 2010 in the field studying hyenas in Kenya. She became a PhD student in the fall semester, 2010 and studies Zoology at Michigan State University.
-  McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399 – 414. doi:10.1037/a0021782↩
- Freeman, S., Haak, D., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2011). Increased course structure improves performance in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 10(2), 175-186.↩
- Bangert-Drowns, R. L., Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. L. C. (1991). Effects of frequent classroom testing. The Journal of Educational Research, 85(2), 89-99.↩
-  Nyroos, M., Schele, I., & Wiklund-Hornqvist, C. (2016). Implementing Test Enhanced Learning: Swedish Teacher Students’ Perception of Quizzing .International Journal of Higher Education, 5(4), p1.↩
- McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 494-513.↩
- Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.↩
- Kluwe, R. H. (1987). Executive decisions and regulation of problem solving behaviour. In F. Weinert & R. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 1–19). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.↩
- Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?. Memory, 17(4), 471-479.↩
- McDermott, K. B., Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(1), 3.↩