Wednesday, March 09, 2011

It's a tick for school tests:

Taking tests helps students to retain facts better, research shows

THE experts behind the revamp of the primary school curriculum did the right thing in doing away with the end-of-year examinations in Primary 1 and 2. This will help reduce stress and anxiety by removing a high-stakes exam, and help ease the young ones into learning.

But teachers should not do away with tests altogether.

Class tests or pop quizzes - given early and often - may help their pupils understand and retain information for the long haul.

A study by Purdue University researchers published recently in the journal Science suggests that taking tests may be the best way to learn, and that it works better than a number of other studying techniques, including concept-mapping.

It joins a list of other studies that have demonstrated the value of testing, including those done by an expert on human memory, Professor Henry Roediger of Washington University.

For the Purdue study, researchers had 200 undergraduates read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works.

Students were divided into four groups. Each group had the same amount of time to study the text, using one of four methods: The first group studied the passage in one session, the second in four consecutive sessions, the third studied the text and then created a detailed diagram of the information, using what we call concept-mapping. The fourth read and studied the material and then took a test to try and recall the information in a free-form essay.

A week later, all four groups were given a short-answer test that assessed their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts in the passage.

The fourth group of students who took a test retained about 50per cent more of the information than the other students in the experiment.

The results fly in the face of the common belief that students who study for tests simply rote-learn and forget the material immediately afterwards.

The researchers on this study noted that the results confirm the importance of test-taking.

Testing can be used as a powerful means for improving learning, not just assessing learning.

But why this type of study technique works is still unknown.

Experts have surmised that when we try to recall information to answer a question in a test, we organise it and create cues and connections that our brains later recognise.

Others say the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Others suggest we learn more efficiently when placed in difficult situations - think of that sinking feeling in your stomach when a pop test is announced.

However it works, what this study does is challenge the criticisms that have been levelled at school curricula that include regular tests and examinations.

Those against frequent testing say it promotes rote learning, takes away valuable time that can be spent on other forms of learning such as research and project work, and causes excessive student anxiety.

Mindful of this, educators around the world and in Singapore tweaked the system over the years to cut down on the number of tests and high-stakes exams.

The Integrated Programme allows academically strong students to skip the Olevels, so that the time they would otherwise have to spend on preparing for the O levels can be used for research attachments or study trips overseas instead.

More recently, the review of the primary school curriculum led to the Government announcing that it would be doing away with the year-end examinations for Primary 1 and 2 children by 2013.

The idea was to ease pupils into school through 'bite-sized forms of assessment' like 'show and tell' and drama or by keeping journals.

Many parents though were not convinced and reacted by buying past exam papers for their children to practise on, and enrolling them at tuition centres that conduct regular tests.

One of the main arguments against testing has been that it encourages rote learning and plain memorisation of the facts, instead of more meaningful forms of learning where a student understands how a new topic he has studied is tied to previous knowledge and understands it well enough to apply it to solve problems presented to him.

The problem with this argument is that it creates a false dichotomy, that rote learning precludes other more meaningful forms of learning.

One can argue that students need to first master the core knowledge in a discipline through memory work and recall, before applying higher levels of thinking.

In science for example, students who memorise their basic facts are far better positioned to master complex concepts than those who have not learnt them.

But one must not run away with the idea that just because the Purdue study found testing to be good, it sanctions high-stake examinations deployed at the end of the academic year to assess how much students have learnt and whether they should progress upwards.

As the Purdue study makes clear, there is a need to move away from using tests as crude assessment tools. Instead, they should be viewed more as a study tool. Used in a more continuous and informal capacity, tests can actually enhance students' learning.

Teachers who conduct pop quizzes and class tests may be on to a good thing, as are Singapore 'tiger mums' who buy their children assessment books and past exam papers with which to practise.

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

From the Straits Times