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How Do You Know You Have Learned Something?

Two Ways to Test for Learning

One of my more vivid childhood memories is of some long forgotten high school teacher's class, on a cold winter morning, when she opened the class by telling us there would be no test today. Wow! How the class reacted. Shouts! Laughing! Relief and happiness! In fact, looking back, I distinctly remember feeling like the man in the opening of Kahlil Gilbran's "the Prophet," wherein we are told, "Then the gates of his heart flew open and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul."

Were tests really that bad? To me and to many other students, yes, they were. In fact, to many students, they still are, including to some of my own students. So what is so bad about taking tests anyway? And is there an alternative? After all,don't we need to know that our students have gotten more out of us than some vivid memory of that we once cancelled a test. Aren't tests a "necessary evil?"

I think not. In fact, recently, it hit me that most of what we do with our students in school is in essence, just damage control; not learning at all. How can I be saying this? Well, think about it. How many teachers did you find interesting or even learn from? One, maybe two in your whole life? And the rest? Well, if you are like me, the rest were well-meaning but boring and tediously useless folks who were obviously just doing the best they could to get through another year. Except, of course, for the occasional new teacher who would excitedly and naively try to make a difference. By years end, of course, a year of doing damage control with students would invariably wear them down to the point where they would start to show the signs they had begun to be officially indoctrinated into the teachers' inner circle; the main one of which that they would, at times, be seen commiserating in the halls, with the more experienced teachers. About what? About how hard the work of teaching is.

So what is it that makes people have such a hard time with school, students and teachers alike? What actually makes people so nervous about taking tests? And what in fact makes people find studying so hard that most people have to force themselves to study, even when what they are being tested on is on a subject they like?

What I am about to suggest is that the reason most of us have such a hard time with tests and with school in general is that we have been prepared by teacher for the wrong thing; we have been prepared to be tested on what we "do know."

So what should we be tested for?

For what we "do not know."

But isn't this what we have been doing when we ask students test questions and then take points off for what they did not know? Actually, no, it's not. What we've actually been doing here is we have been pointing out to them how many questions they could not answer correctly. How many questions they got wrong. So no, we have not been asking students to focus on what they do not know.

But don't teachers frequently ask students to ask them questions about what they do not know?

Yes. Of course they do. Most teachers do this in fact. However, how many students will actually risk being ridiculed or laughed at in order to ask these questions? Did you want to be called a "nerd" or a "brown-noser?" Was learning that important to you?

More to the point though, why were we being asked by the teacher to ask them questions? Wasn't it to prepare us for what we were going to be tested on; what we did know?

So what would schools be like if we focused on discovering what our students did not know? What in fact would it be like for teachers if their primary purpose in school was to create in students the wonderful desire we each are born with but mostly lose by age three; the intense desire to discover what we do not know about our world and ourselves? What would this be like? Wouldn't you want to be back in school?



How do you feel about taking tests? If you are like most people, you don't like them. In fact, most students I ask say they hate taking tests. Tests make people nervous. So whether it's a spot quiz, a mid term, or an end of year final; whether it's a multiple choice test, a three-part essay, or a fill in the blanks exam; most tests make people so nervous, they hate them.

Oddly, this text anxiety even extends to those around the test taker. Thus, most people have heard other people say that they "need to study," "should study," "have to study," or "should have studied more," or that you "wish all your tests were all over an done with, that you wish there were no more tests."

The way we try to educate people is backwards and that rather than testing for what students do know, we would do far more good by testing for what they do not know.