GUEST POST: To Test or Not To Test? That Is Not The Question
By Craig Westby
Craig Westby is the Deputy Head Teacher at Old Hill Primary School, England. Craig has been teaching for over 15 years from Reception (4-5yrs) - Year 6 (10-11yrs). In 2017, he became Interim Head Teacher whilst his school supported another but for the time being, is very much happily teaching and exploring cognitive science to improve student outcomes. Together with his colleague and Assistant Head, Carl Badger, and having received a grant from the Institute for Effective Education (IEE), Craig is currently trialling how retrieval practice can improve outcomes in primary schools. You can find Craig on Twitter at @eggegg80.
If there’s one way to instantly divide opinion in the teaching profession, it’s to mention the word ‘testing’. Testing is seen by some as the evil part of education: created to destroy both student and teacher self-esteem. Often conceived in primary education as a one-hour written task, completed in silence, with resulting data then used to scrutinize quality of teaching and learning. At its worst, it is the high-stakes, end of key stage tests for Year 6 (equivalent to US 5th Grade) in England. Children sit a 1 hour reading test, currently not linked to the curriculum; a 45 min grammar test; a 20 min spelling test; and three math tests (one 30 min arithmetic and two 40 min reasoning papers), totaling almost 4 hrs. Make no mistake – schools are heavily judged and compared by this data, not just by the National high-stakes school inspection service (Ofsted), but also by the local authority, parents and worse, each other. So is it really that surprising that tests have such a bad reputation?
Testing: assessment of learning or assessment for learning…or testing to aid learning?
One of the issues with testing is that they are sometimes administered by schools to the pupils and not with them. For example, primary schools often collect data from tests at 3 points in the academic year, one per term. These are usually in the form of published written tests in reading, grammar and math. But does this actually help to identify what the pupils do and don’t know? Dylan William summarizes the difference between the two forms of assessment:
The distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning is basically about the intention behind the assessment. So, if you’re assessing in order to help you teach better, that’s assessment for learning, and if you’re assessing in order to grade students, to rank them or to give them a score on a test, then that’s assessment of learning. But in classrooms I see plenty of what I would call formative intention but very little formative action. Teachers often say to me that they collect information in order to take action to help students, but if you follow it through, you find that the data never get acted on and the teaching never changes direction…If you’re not using the evidence to do something that you couldn’t have done without the evidence, you’re not doing formative assessment.
Dylan Wiliam, Institute of Education, University of London, Keynote (2006).
Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment talks of the principle that assessment should be about children producing more ‘stuff’ and that ‘stuff’ can be looked at by teachers. Teachers should be using assessment to support learning and to assess whether the children have understood the idea or key concepts knowledge and skills.
But, there’s a third reason why teachers should be testing their students: to help them remember what they have learned – in other words, to help them practice retrieval.
Types of testing (retrieval practice):
A staple of any teacher’s arsenal is questioning. And why do teachers ask questions? Presumably, to test whether students can remember prior learning. Unfortunately, however, the most commonly used questioning methods might not be the most effective. When we ask a question to the whole class, some hands go up, a teacher chooses a student to answer, and then (assuming a correct answer was given) moves on. One problem is that in this case a teacher only learns what one student thinks, not how all the rest would have answered, or whether they would have been able to answer at all. “Assertive questioning”, on the other hand, is a technique that involves students discussing answers in groups with their classmates and then reporting back to the teacher, before discussing all possible answers and choosing one as a class (see this blog post by Geoff Petty for more on assertive questioning). Petty proposes that assertive questioning is more beneficial because it means that all students are involved in answering the question and don’t have the choice of ‘opting out’. Similarly Doug Lemov also adheres to the importance of wait times when asking questions to ensure every child has adequate time to respond in his book Teach Like A Champion (2015). As teachers, we are sometimes so concerned with keeping pace and flow of lessons that we move on too quickly.
The take-away point is that questions are good - just be sure every child has an opportunity to think hard and not opt out.
Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ)
Have you, as an adult, ever taken part in a quiz – be it a ‘pub quiz’, family board game or play-along with a television show, such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Have you noticed other people’s reactions when they get an answer correct? Perhaps a “YESSSSSS!” with a triumphant fist-pump for good measure! Try giving a MCQ quiz to your class during and after teaching them about a given topic. Watch their reactions as they get more and more questions correct. MCQ is a powerful tool for learning that is in essence retrieval practice, particularly when paired with feedback (see this guest post on our blog for how to use MCQs effectively).
Online software such as Socrative and many others can be used to test curriculum knowledge through MCQs. Children complete assigned quizzes individually or through teacher-led sessions. Furthermore, these quizzes can be aligned with Knowledge Organizers (see below) to test key knowledge throughout the year.
A brain dump involves eliciting as much knowledge as possible about a subject from a student’s mind. This could be done in the form of speech, drawings, or simply writing.
The example below is from a Year 3 (2nd Grade in the US) unit of work on the Ancient Egyptians. After several weeks, the children were asked to do a brain dump on plain paper. The examples are from a student with low prior attainment (left) and high prior attainment (right).
The teacher was pleased with some of the knowledge produced – particularly with respect to the usefulness of the River Nile. As we can see, on the left the student was able to talk about papyrus and where it came from. The student on the right remembered that flax came from a plant and in turn was manufactured into linen clothes.
My colleague, Carl Badger (Assistant Headteacher) and I took brain dumps one step further and presented the dumps back to staff for reflection. Below is an example of a reflection sheet that was completed by staff:
If you asked early years (age 0-5) practitioners how often they tested children, what would you imagine their response to be? It is unlikely that they would endorse testing as a learning practice. But let’s take a look at the methods they use. Take phonics, for instance. The use of flashcards is a key feature of helping children to remember phonemes and their corresponding diagraphs. Yet, not every teacher of phonics would realize that what they are actually doing on a daily basis is both retrieval practice (flash card is shown and children response with appropriate phoneme) and interleaving (although a new phoneme may be introduced daily, the mixing up of practice such as blending, retrieval of ‘tricky’ words and written practice). For more information on interleaving see http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/8/11-1?rq=interleaving and http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/3/28/weekly-digest-3?rq=interleaving.
Knowledge Organizers (KOs)
Knowledge Organizers (KOs) are being used increasingly in schools in the UK to refine fundamental aspects of learning within a unit. Although not a test itself, a KO can be used to form part of a retrieval practice: students are given KOs that may be partially or fully blanked-out, and asked to fill in the rest from memory. Once completed, the teacher may share class or individual feedback and use the ‘gaps’ to revisit prior lessons.
Just remember (no pun intended!), although all of these ‘tests’ can be used as a form of assessment, retrieval practice is first and foremost a learning tool and should be used as such. After all, isn’t it our job as teachers to teach children stuff and then help them remember it?