Teaching to the Test: It just might Work

The idea of “teaching to the test” is something that is viewed undesirable by just about everyone. But a new study shows that there may be something to it.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.
One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.
These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.

Read the whole thing for more particulars, but the test-review-test method “beat” the official concept mapping method. They are still not sure why:

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.
“When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything — it’s simple playback,” said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the study.
But “when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access” to that information, Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”
It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.
Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.
“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”
By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

Interesting stuff.

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13 years ago

Marc, you seem to misunderstand what is meant by “teaching to the test.” It’s not controversial to suggest that testing can help students learn, but teaching to the test implies that what is learned is dictated by the test questions themselves.
The danger is that students can be taught that 2+2=4 without any real understanding of the conception of addition or how addition might be applied to solve real world problems, which should be of great concern unless the goal is test passing versus educating students to solve problems and think creatively.

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