Department of English

Fall 2010 Edition

Better Learning: The Benefits of More Classroom Testing

E.J. Leavitt
Argumentative 1010 2nd Place
Professor: Carole Schuyler

Imagine leaping out of a plane to experience an exhilarating skydive. As you freefall through the sky, crisp, cool air rushes past while you enjoy the view below. Then, upon dropping to the appropriate elevation, it is time to deploy the parachute. When you do, the parachute opens too quickly and snaps several cords; a whole new shot of adrenaline screams through your body from the sight. Now, the reserve parachute is the only link between life and death. However, it flies out in a terrifying tangle. As you scramble to repair the problem, the number of feet on the altimeter plummets: 800…525…200…100…25…thud! You are dead.

This experience can be compared to enrolling in a course where there are only a midterm and a final. If a student fails or does poorly on the midterm, then an outstanding performance on the final exam is his or her only chance of passing (or surviving) the class. There is little or no ability to check and improve studying habits or to check if expectations are met or not. Instead, anxiety, distress, procrastination, and a lot of cramming takes place. This is why students need more classroom tests. While limiting tests to only a midterm and final in a course may reduce professors' workloads, careful, frequent testing will produce better study habits, encourage better performance on final exams, and reduce anxiety while developing skills that will be beneficial throughout students' lives.

In his essay, "More Testing, More Learning," Patrick O'Malley argues that infrequent, high-stakes testing works against students psychologically and intellectually, and that more classroom testing will reduce anxiety and increase studying and learning as opposed to only a midterm and final exam. He wrote his well-published essay as a freshman attending a California state university.

Mark McDaniel and Mary H. Derbish (Washington University), Janis L. Anderson (Harvard Medical School), and Nova Morrisette (University of New Mexico) support Patrick O'Malley's empirical argument that frequent testing will bring more learning. In their essay, "Testing the Testing Effect in the Classroom," they performed a study of the benefits of regular classroom testing. They found that when frequent quizzes and tests are given to students throughout a course, learning and retention of the course material is enhanced and the students do better on their final exam.

Patrick J. Wolf, Endowed Chair and Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, also delves further into support of testing in his essay, "Academic Improvement Through Regular Assessment." He reasons that regular assessment can provide students and teachers with feedback that identifies areas where motivational and learning problems need to be corrected. He notes that skills obtained from test-taking experience will serve students well throughout their lives.

On the opposing side is Cindy Wright, a 30-year professor of nutrition at Southern Utah University. She argues that more tests would consume valuable lecture time that could be used for helping students learn and understand new material. Also, she adds that fewer tests allow more time for grading, which increases the ability to give comprehensive tests with essay questions instead of plain fill-in-the-bubble Scantron tests. The absence of extra tests would be balanced by better assessments of knowledge that allow students to write down ideas about what they have learned.

While Wright uses convincing authoritative arguments in favor of less testing, O'Malley, McDaniel et al., and Wolf use empirical and authoritative evidence strongly in favor of more classroom testing. They find that having more tests helps improve learning by decreasing anxiety and increasing studying, retention, and feedback.

The first reason that frequent testing is beneficial for learning is that it drives students to study and learn more. A course with only a midterm and final exam will lead students to procrastinate studying until the last week or night before the exam. Testing at regular intervals, however, will lead students to adapt to a fine schedule of studying well before a test. Apiwan D. Born, assistant professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Illinois, suggests that while frequent testing motivates students to study more and stay on top of materials, it also can prevent illicit behaviors of plagiarism and cheating, as students' sources of help (e.g., friends who previously took the same course) will likely refuse to do someone else's work regularly with no reward or credit (224).

By studying more often instead of cramming at the last minute, learning is also slowed down. This allows a deeper and sharper understanding of the material "…when a concept, idea, or image settles into a student's psyche and ceases to be simply words on [a] page" (Randall 189). While slow learning deepens the understanding of learned material, it also improves the recall of the information. Jill Wilks, Master of Education, explains this concept by comparing the brain's long term memory to a forest: if the deer (information) are allowed to run "helter-skelter" into a forest, it is nearly impossible to recall them on demand from the shallow paths they made. Otherwise, if they are allowed to dig deep into the brain, they can easily be recalled (113). Frequent, slower learning that is brought on by frequent assessment serves students better than lone midterms and finals that encourage cramming

A second reason is that students will perform better on big exams and projects when frequent assessment is implemented. A collaborative study performed by Mark A. McDaniel, Janis L. Anderson, Mary H. Derbish, and Nova Morrisette showed that frequent quizzing without extra reading (studying) increases students' performance on final exams (494). Also, students themselves prefer frequent quizzes and tests in the classroom. A study from Harvard showed students' "strong preference for frequent evaluation in a course" and their feeling that less is learned when given "only a midterm and a final exam, with no other personal evaluation" (O'Malley 312). Testing, sometimes conceived by teachers as a diagnostic tool only, can also act as a direct tool to help students learn.

A third reason for frequent testing is that it helps reduce anxiety and increase achievement in students. Researchers from the University of Vermont found strong relationships between procrastination, anxiety, and achievement with the finding that regular procrastinators had higher anxiety and lower grades than those who procrastinated less. In addition, the researchers saw that the "low" procrastinators also did not use regular study, and recommended that professors give frequent assignments and exams to boost good study habits (O'Malley 313). Frequent testing keeps anxiety low by detecting weaknesses before stakes are raised high, such as a final exam or entering into the "real world." Patrick J. Wolf compared this to breast cancer: when detected early, the cancer is easily removed, but if it is given the time to metastasize, the cancer disfigures and often kills (697).

Wolf also notes that skills obtained from frequent test-taking will serve students well throughout their lives. For example, feedback from frequent testing allows students to evaluate the areas in a course in which they could improve. In the business world, this action of judging against a standard to improve is known as "benchmarking." As students enter the work force, they can analyze their performance from past projects and actions of other firms, and then adjust their own actions to become more effective and efficient workers. This continuous process of improvement shows why top performers are the best and why others struggle (Kumar and Bagali). This ability to frequently analyze and improve will help students reach their highest potential during and after their education.

The underlying values of all these points are important to teachers and students seeking better ways to teach and learn. Frequent testing will enhance learning and studying habits, while increasing recall and the depth of the knowledge learned. Also, performance on midterm and final exams will rise as students receive regular evaluation throughout the course from testing. Students' academic experience will improve as they experience less anxiety, while learning essential skills that can be applied throughout life.

Regardless of the empirical and authoritative evidence pointing out the benefits of more testing, opponents support the use of less testing in the learning environment. One reason in favor of less testing, stated by Wright, is that tests consume valuable lecture time that could be used to help students learn. Teachers are often burdened with little time in class to teach large amounts of information to their students. However, if smaller, timed tests were given frequently, students would be able to review material that would bring their minds up to speed with past material. These tests allow them to benchmark their knowledge, which would influence them to increase their study habits after class. In a 50-minute class meeting, twenty minutes or less could be devoted to a test, leaving over half an hour for the teacher's lecture. The usual long lecture can be quite ineffective when used towards the average sleep-deprived college student. In fact, researchers found that a student's attention typically wavers out in twenty minutes or less (Middendorf and Kalish 3). By having a stimulating short test at the beginning of class, students can get ready for the lecture and be fully attentive towards the teacher throughout the remainder of class.

Wright also gives a second objection by arguing that if fewer tests were given, then teachers could use more comprehensive tests, such as essay tests, that require students to recall information instead of merely recognizing it (which is usually the case with multiple-choice tests). This is quite true: written tests would challenge students significantly more than multiple-choice tests would. However, by using only a few written tests, instead of several multiple-choice tests throughout a course, students' abilities to benchmark their studying habits and learning are hindered. Also, as the number of tests decreases, the stakes on the existing tests increase. For example, if there are only three tests in a course, then those tests are likely to be treated similarly to if there were only a midterm and a final. O'Malley portrays the feelings in this distressful atmosphere by saying:

It's late at night. The final's tomorrow. You got a C on the midterm, so this one will make or break you. Will it be like the midterm? Did you study enough? Did you study the right things? It's too late to drop the course. So what happens if you fail? No time to worry about that now – you've got a ton of notes to go over. (311)

By being tested more frequently, students can avoid the fear and anxiety of high-stakes assessment, regularly evaluating their performance in the class while obtaining better study habits.

Furthermore, some feel that testing can sometimes fail to achieve its purpose. After performing a study seeking teachers' and teacher education students' opinions about testing in schools, Kathy E. Green, Professor of Quantitative Research Methods at the University of Denver, introduces concerns that some teachers are incompetent in the writing and interpreting of tests. She observes that students feel that tests are unfair assessments of knowledge and that alternatives are sometimes needed (41).

There is some truth to this – sometimes teachers fail to write tests well. However, teachers typically are not unresponsive machines that are powered off after class ends. Students can voice their concerns to their teacher, and he or she can work to solve the problem. For example, after the first test in my Business in Society class, many students complained to the professor that many of the test's questions were confusing because of how they were written. He then told the class that he would try to write the questions on the next test in a simpler manner, but with the same level of difficulty. When the second test was issued a couple of weeks later, the students felt much better about the test's material and were more satisfied with the results (the class had about the same scores with the first test). After seeing their scores, they knew whether changes in their studying were needed or not.

Hopefully, students in the future will not have to deal with classes that offer only midterm and final exams, which give them a false sense of security as they freefall through a semester. Without frequent testing, these students are led to procrastinate until a night or two prior to a big exam, when they will cram until the sun rises or until their tired eyeballs jump out of their sockets, seeking sleep themselves— whichever comes first. Sadly, the usage of infrequent testing is likely to continue, as professors offer as few tests as possible to save themselves time or (albeit a misled belief) to reduce students' anxiety. Giving only a midterm and final may reduce students' anxiety for a while, but it will also send them through a crash course of distress when an examination is near. Plato once said, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Frequent testing discourages the compulsive learning associated with high-stakes cramming and ultimately helps students gain true knowledge and learning.

Works Cited
Born, Apiwan D. "Teaching Tip: How To Reduce Plagiarism." Journal of Information Systems Education 14.3 (2003): 223-24. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
Durst, Russel K., ed. You Are Here: Readings on Higher Education for College Writers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003. Print.
Green, Kathy E. "Differing Opinions On Testing Between Preservice and Inservice Teachers." Journal of Educational Research 86.1 (1992): 37. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 Sep. 2010.
Kumar, Sachin, and M.M. Bagali. "Employee Benchmarking." Articlesbase. Articlesbase, 2009. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
McDaniel, Mark A., et al. "Testing the Testing Effect in the Classroom." European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 19.4/5 (2007): 494-513. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 Sep. 2010.
Middendorf, Joan, and Alan Kalish. "The Change-Up in Lectures." The National Teaching and Learning Forum 5.2 (1996): 1-4. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.
O'Malley, Patrick. "More Testing, More Learning." Durst 311-15. Print.
Plato. "Plato Quotes." BrainyQuote. BrainyQuote, 18 Nov 2010. Web. 19 Nov 2010.
Randall, Michael. "A Guide to Good Teaching: Be Slow and Inefficient." Durst 188-91. Print.
Wilks, Jill. Your Expanding Intelligence. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil, 2011. Print.
Wolf, Patrick J. "Academic Improvement Through Regular Assessment." Peabody Journal of Education 82.4 (2007): 690-702. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 Sep. 2010.
Wright, Cindy. Personal Interview. 27 Sep. 2010.