Taking tests means learning best

Test takingI was forwarded this article (entitled, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test) as part of an ongoing discussion on active learning for STEM classes. The idea is that active learning is more effective than passive learning. Active learning encompasses a lot of things – but fundamentally switches the focus to the student’s learning by doing.

One way I understand active learning is in comparison to passive learning. Imagine the typical large lecture hall where you sit and passively listen to the professor tell you what you need to know. Have you ever felt your eyes drooping, or maybe even fell asleep during a lecture? The professor might think the information is interesting an engaging, but listening to someone talk at you for an hour can be exhausting. This is likely why even NPR has interludes of punchy music to break up the monotony of talk radio.

The active learning strategy discussed in this article is to have students take tests early and often. Students retained more information after taking several tests than after having one study session or even multiple study sessions. I have to wonder if the stress and adrenaline that accompany test taking for most people plays a critical role in solidifying information retention. There’s nothing like that jittery-about-to-take-a-test feeling – usually it’s combined with caffeine and lack of sleep for me!

When I prepped for the SATs in college and the GRE’s for graduate school, I took practice exams and prep courses in which we took more practice exams. Then I took the SATs 3 times until I got the score I wanted. I studied for the test by taking the test. So for me, at least, I see some merit in this strategy. I also see a downside though, one I am facing right now in teaching introductory statistics.

When you teach through tests, or even through practice problems designed to help students through tests, that is emphasizing that the purpose of the class is to pass a test. This is somewhat limiting. All of the example problems in the world may help a stats student ace the final exam, but they won’t help her design an effective data collection scheme for her class project. They won’t help her figure out how to choose the best figure to illustrate her data, or how to analyze the data. My point is that learning is not ONLY about information retention. It’s also about thinking critically and applying problem solving skills to problems where there isn’t a single solution. We need to start brainstorming more effective ways to have students practice using their creativity to solve important problems – lord knows the world has enough of them to go around.






2 thoughts on “Taking tests means learning best

  1. As in sports, you play like you practice: if you practice recall and not higher cognitive skills like inferring, analyzing, etc., you will end up retaining information that soon dies at the altar of obsolescence. Students must bear the burden of memorization, while the teacher leads in the application of higher skills. In theory, anyway.


  2. In choosing or designing learning experiences, problem solving of increasing complexity and relevance should be the goal of learning. It’s a utilitarian approach, I know, but many students are not ready to buy into “learning for learning’s sake.” This is specially true for intro courses aiming to equip students with mathematical tools. Recognizing and Remembering a hammer is not enough to build a cathedral.



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