Helping Students Understand What a Test Is and Is Not

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We are facing a problem with tests in education.

Students are strongly influenced by the implied messages they deduce from what is being tested, especially when the test is emphasized as high stakes in terms of their grades. Further, they can draw dangerous conclusions about their own role in the learning process by what is done with the assessment results.

Putting the Assessment in Context

We've all taken tests, and we've felt either proud or ashamed of the results, often following a tense waiting period. Students share these feelings and may assume that their intelligence level is reflected on a given test, especially when told that significant portions of their grades are based on their test performance. Deepening the challenge is the limited range of questioning and response. This naturally discredits such tests as authentic measurement tools in the minds of students, and instead relegates them to mere "academic" status as another oppressive set of numbers.

We can mitigate against students' acquiring this damaging mindset by helping them understand that any one test on a subject does not demonstrate all of the understanding and knowledge they have developed -- and then adapting our grading, scoring and performance reporting accordingly.

We can also communicate -- both before we give the tests and when we return the scores -- the scale, purpose and limitations of this particular assessment. The idea here is not to discredit the assessment, but to authenticate the full learning process in the minds of the students, their family members and other shareholders in education.

This suggests including feedback with frequent formative assessments, feedback that should be both corrective and specific regarding progress toward the learning goals.

Preventing Assessment-Related Damage to Learning

If your students do not find summative test scores reflective of the extent of their learning, help them recognize other ways that you have seen them demonstrate their learning about the topic, whether through group work, projects, discussions, homework, or even the questions they ask. With this understanding, students' emotional responses will not cause the reactive stress response in their amygdala that restricts higher cognition.

Further, they will be able to reflect on any valuable feedback offered by the assessment results. Since you have helped them understand the limitations of the test, their brains will be open to these discussions instead of having the flow of information blocked by their stress response.

Fostering this kind of metacognition after the assessment can help students discover what was missing from their studying that resulted in gaps in their knowledge during the assessment. And more importantly, you will be giving them the immediate reinforcement of realizing what they did right in their preparation, which will encourage them to use those strategies in the future.