While some writers dislike anecdote as a justification, I’ll use one to illustrate. I was sufficiently able to pass the 11 plus and went to a traditional boy’s grammar. Most subjects were fine, but, although I enjoyed drawing and painting, this had not been a significant part of a very disjointed schooling. Homework one day was to draw from life the road in which you lived. Diligently I undertook the task, probably with tongue out in correct artist pose. The teacher lined everyone up and moved people up and down the line until he was satisfied, before giving a percentage mark which was recorded in the markbook. As I slowly shuffled down the line, my interest and enthusiasm for art diminished by each move. Luckily, I moved schools to a more humane grammar and met encouragement and insights which allowed me to take art at GCE and pass. That was good for teaching, as my pleasure was able to be shared throughout my career. Nobody likes to “fail”, but there are ways of failing which can result in growth, while the opposite is also true. Taking away second or third chances can seem perverse.
When I was at school there was a huge focus on copying and testing and it put me off words and stories for years. Michael Morpurgo
Looking at definitions of testing gives rise to a range of opinions,
- A procedure for critical evaluation; a means of determining the presence, quality, or truth of something; a trial:
- the act of subjecting to experimental test in order to determine how well something works
- testing objects or persons in order to identify those with particular characteristics
- the act of giving students or candidates a test (as by questions) to determine what they know or have learned
- the work of inquiring into something thoroughly and systematically
- Information from which to rank order outcomes for a specific purpose.
For some activities, repetitive rehearsal is needed. Consider the “Look and say, cover, write, check” approach to learning spellings, where a child has a list to be learned, focuses and says the word aloud, covers it up, writes it down, then uncovers to check whether it is correct or not. For some this requires several attempts. The purpose is to train the short term memory, based on the need to acquire the spellings of words by sight.
The teacher testing role is often diagnostic. Checking a child’s capabilities is part of the daily routine. Open questioning can allow a child to scaffold their explanation, securing the information more securely, particularly if the oral rehearsal is followed by written recording. Probing questions can enable a diagnostic testing, to identify gaps in understanding which can then be addressed.
Accuracy, eg in maths can be checked with a page of equations to be solved. How many are required for this can be determined by negotiation; it is possible to differentiate this demand, by seeking five straight correct answers before moving on.
Understanding and accuracy can be checked by offering the equations to be solved, then to explore the thinking that went on and explaining how the answer could be checked for accuracy.
Testing oneself is best when done alone. Jimmy Carter
It is possible to view reflection as a form of self-testing. What do I know and what do I need to address? Creating situations where learners have to engage with both the “stuff” of their learning and the means by which they “know and understand” what they have learned is more likely to secure long term gains. It is even stronger if they have to “use and apply” what they know to solve real life problems.
Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me, and I’ll understand. Chinese proverb
In the right hands, testing can support, refine and promote further learning, especially if the outcome is to address any issues arising. In the wrong hands, testing can become destructive, especially when coupled with a deficit mindset, where a student scoring low on the test is subject to comments which further undermine learning confidence.