I Was Wrong About Tests

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Tests are good. Very good. But we use them incorrectly. Most educators I know and politicians I hear about use them incorrectly as well. But I had one teacher who knew the truth about tests.

Mr. Corson -- the brilliant guy behind Sonlight's Psychology Program and one of the great educators in my life -- gave us a quiz every single morning. He called them OQs or "Opportunity Quizzes." Ostensibly, these were opportunities for us to show him what we had learned from our reading. I was certain they were daily opportunities to fail. Five questions. Multiple choice. Every single day.

I hated it. But I passed the AP Psych test like a jet ski and a sinking rock.

These brief, little tests reinforced our reading. All it took was five multiple choice questions every morning to lock the important concepts into our brains. And, it turns out, the simple act of retrieval practice boosts tests scores by more than 10%. You remember more if you simply ask yourself to try to remember it.

Support Your Learning with Tests

Do you struggle to remember people's names? I do. So I quiz myself when I first meet them.

"Hi, I'm Luke."

"Hi, Luke. I'm Sam."

We chat for a few moments, and then I'll try to remember their name.

"So, Sam, you like homeschooling? Me too!"

It's a blow to my ego every time I get it wrong. How embarrassing that I can't recall a name after 23 seconds! But the little recall attempt helps stick the name in my head. Next week, if I see the person again, I'll test myself afresh. "It's Sunny, right? No? Oh, I'm so sorry, Sam!"

So, as I've observed before, tests are not ideal for measuring, motivating, or monitoring students. Tests tell us almost nothing about what a student understands. And tests, like grades, prioritize performance over learning. I really don't like tests or grades. And when tests are used to measure students, those tests are bad.

But good tests are those short quizzes we use to reinforce a concept or idea and enhance memorization.

I was wrong about tests because I -- like most educators -- was only thinking about it as a tool for the teacher. I had not even considered how powerful a tool a quick test can be for helping the student learn.

I'm not sure how I missed the benefit of tests all these years. Probably because, when I think about tests, I'm thinking about something else entirely.

How do you apply this to Sonlight?

Easy. Keep doing what we've recommended from the start: Talk with your children about what you've read. By asking questions and discussing the material, you nudge them to practice retrieval of the information you are learning together.

You don't need formal quizzes. You don't need to grade something. And your student does not need to study. Simply ask your student to recall something from the lesson, and you're both likely to remember it better.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Guardian

Blog Opportunity Quiz:

  1. How many questions were on the daily OCs?
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
  2. What is the name of Luke's imaginary new friend?
    1. Stan
    2. Suzy
    3. Sunny
    4. Sam
    5. Sally
  3. In Luke's analogy of passing the AP test, the two items were a ______ and a ______:
    1. Blimp, Tree
    2. Jet ski, Rock
    3. Car, Doughnut Shop
    4. Lead, Weight
    5. Rorschach Test, Social Contract
  4. Tests are a useful tool for
    1. Students
    2. Teachers
    3. Policy makers
    4. Parents
    5. a, b and d
  5. Do you need formal quizzes?
    1. Yes, and study for them!
    2. No, simply encourage recall as you discuss.
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  1. Pingback: Education Is Not About Teaching | Sonlight Blog