Can Testing Help Enhance Learning?

June 18, 2019 by Hannah
Image "Supertutor” Mark Maclaine is Tutorfair's Co-founder and Director of Learning. Mark is currently working on his new book which is based on a series of real life clients and the experiences he has gained over his many years of tutoring. This series looks at ‘Maintaining your memory banks’ and this next chapter looks at ‘Testing’.

Few topics in education polarise people quite like testing.

In the critical corner are those who believe tests induce crippling stress, impede creativity and amount to little more than a memorisation exercise. I was in this camp for a long time, but have now come to understand the learning potential of testing. Used correctly it has three distinct benefits.

  1. Firstly, by recalling memories it helps consolidate knowledge.

  2. Secondly, testing highlights gaps in knowledge which you can then concentrate on filling.

  3. Thirdly, tests allow students to practise applying their knowledge.

The importance of highlighting gaps in knowledge is often underestimated. Studies have shown that people who are relatively ignorant in a subject tend to overestimate their ability compared to people who know the topic better. Essentially, people who know little do not know how little they know. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it accounts for the way students often see little reason to apply themselves unless we can show them what they don’t know, through testing.

A  Case Study

Testing strengthens memories. In a 2011 study in the US, teenage science students were taught a set of topics and then quizzed on them three times later on in the term. Another set of topics were also taught, but these were only reviewed and not quizzed, also three times. Students averaged A- on the topics that had been quizzed and C+ on those that hadn’t.

Regular low-stakes quizzing of topics is such a powerful learning tool that I’ve built into my own lessons as standard practice. At the start of each lesson, I give a brief quiz on what we covered in the last one – sometimes it’s oral and sometimes written. Ask open questions rather than yes/no questions, such as “do you understand?”, as students will often say “yes” regardless of the truth. Ask students to summarise in their own words what they have learnt.

Since my focus is on teaching students how to learn for themselves, I let my students know why we’re doing the quiz and encourage them to test themselves in their own time too, by making revision cards, visiting dedicated websites, and looking at past papers. The ultimate goal is a confident self-tester who doesn’t need you at all.

What about when the stakes are far higher? How do you help a student prepare for the nerve-shredding experience of a major exam?

Gently explain the benefits of tests, and explain that they are not a fixed measure of ability, but a momentary check of progress on the way to mastery. What gets most of my students most worried is that they don’t know what to expect from an upcoming exam. It can be very beneficial for these students to sit practice papers in unusual settings. I once helped set up a company called Moxams. We hired spaces in intimidating-looking buildings and wore suits to look as official as possible. After the exams we took great care to make sure students left with positive associations of the experience, so as to help them overcome nerves for future exams in unfamiliar places. This simulation of exam conditions was extremely helpful for nearly every student who took part. 
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