It's the end of the semester here at UC Berkeley, and I've got testing on my mind. I'm not the only one; across campus, instructors are engaged in the arduous task of grading quickly and fairly while students sigh with relief as they exit their final, final exams.
We most often think of tests as being about assessment. They tell us something about how successfully an individual has mastered the material being tested, and this assessment can in turn help us to assign grades, make determinations about placement or identify areas that would benefit from further study.
There's no doubt that these uses for tests have some value. But thinking of tests as mere instruments for assessment misses an opportunity for learning.
The very process of preparing for and taking tests can foster learning, and that, after all, is the fundamental goal of education, isn't it? I'd certainly like to think so, though there are more cynical takes on the role of higher education.
Let's consider a thought-provoking article published last month in which UCLA ecologist Peter Nonacs describes how he boosted learning in his behavioral ecology class by letting students cheat on a test. (Okay, so it wasn't really cheating, since he sanctioned the use of peers, books, the Internet and other sources in crafting the best answers to the exam questions.) As he'd hoped, the lead-up to the exam and the test-taking itself got students thinking like behavioral ecologists, including the very principles of game theory Nonacs hoped to instill:
In discussion section, they speculated, organized, and plotted. What would be the test's payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about "scroungers" who didn't study but were planning to parasitize everyone else's hard work? How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits?
His approach was especially clever and appropriate for a class on ecology, where cooperation and competition in real-world "tests" are integral to the subject matter, but the strategy of rethinking tests as opportunities for learning is more general. Nonacs writes:
Is the take-home message, then, that cheating is good? Well ... no. Although by conventional test-taking rules, the students were cheating, they actually weren't in this case. Instead, they were changing their goal in the Education Game from "Get a higher grade than my classmates" to "Get to the best answer."
A shift to thinking about tests for mastery rather than measurement isn't just refreshing, it's also supported by psychological research.
Dozens (if not hundreds) of studies have investigated students' goals in learning and how they influence achievement. Most prominently, researchers have differentiated mastery goals, which focus on improving one's own competence, from performance goals, which focus on doing well to outperform others, obtain positive feedback (in the form of grades or praise), or avoid looking bad.
Adopting mastery goals pretty reliably leads to greater learning, increases willingness to tackle hard problems and can even improve social relationships. So conceptualizing tests as opportunities for learning – consistent with a mastery goal – can itself improve learning, even if the tests take more traditional forms than that of Nonacs's collaborative experiment.
And that's not all: there's also evidence that test-taking itself can improve retention for the material being tested. In a 2006 demonstration of a phenomenon known as the "testing effect," for example, Roedieger and Karpicke had students read passages of text and then either repeatedly study them or repeatedly test their ability to recall them, without any feedback on how well they did on the tests. The students who repeatedly studied the passage were more confident about their ability to remember the content than those who were repeatedly tested. But the latter group considerably outperformed the former when it came to actual memory for the passage one week later.
So testing can be an excellent tool in an educator's toolbox, but it's one that needs to be used wisely. The American Psychological Association warns of the dangers of "high-stakes" testing in our nation's schools, and a report from the National Academies of Science suggests few benefits to our current test-based accountability system.
Part of the problem, I contend, is a narrow focus on testing for assessment. Let's start thinking about testing for learning.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo