Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Testing and learning

January 25th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

An article published in Science this week, and reviewed in the New York Times, describes findings about the role of testing in learning.  The findings are interesting because they are not entirely consistent with our current views of how people learn.  

We often view the ‘test‘ as a necessary evil.  It serves the purpose of evaluation, separating high performers from the less capable.  It makes people anxious and uncomfortable.  We avoid them, defer them, and ask for substitutions.  As employees, we become insulted when our employer asks us to take a test to ‘prove’ our learning.  However, the study in Science suggests that we should view testing as part of learning.  

In the study, students who were required to take a test learned better than students who took part in other learning activities such as mind mapping and deliberate recall tasks.  There is something about the testing environment that forces students to pay more attention to the material, recognize gaps in their knowledge, and review difficult or misunderstood concepts.  While there is nothing particularly surprising about these findings, it does suggest that we should reconsider the role of testing as a part of learning rather than as a purely administrative function.  

There are still many questions left unanswered.  The process of ‘constructing’ knowledge – or building from experience with the world – is described as deep processing. This is where information can be integrated into our understanding of the world.   We learn how to connect the new information to ourselves, what we know already and what we do all day.  How can testing encourage us to integrate information into our existing world view?  Is testing a part of deep learning or simply a way to encourage simple recall?  Does learning help the application of learning or the recall alone?


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