Looking deeper at how tests work and whether they’re beneficial in assessing what a student does or does not know 

As you sit down and receive a blank test, you feel confident in your ability to do well. After all, the hours of reviewing you did last night would have to ensure that you get at least a B. However, as you read the first question, your mind goes blank.

When looked at from various perspectives, testing can range from being extraordinarily helpful to overwhelmingly harmful. 

“You want a variety of ways of testing,” said MVHS biology teacher Lora Lerner. “Maybe some writing, maybe some speaking, maybe some reading, maybe something that’s more creative, so that you get a picture of how well [the students] know the content.”

Different testing methods can range from multiple choice to short answers to essays. Depending on the student, students may find certain methods relatively easier or harder than other ones. A student in Lerner’s class, freshman Sophia Nazareno, has seen this first-hand.

“[The multiple choice test questions] are challenging in a way,” Nazareno said. “And, even though it’s multiple choice, [I find that I have to] go [take] retakes a lot more often. Having retakes available has been very beneficial [because the] tests are a little challenging.”

The way a test is formatted can also play a factor in student performance. In a study published by Vanderbilt University, students were asked to take a multiple choice test in a lab, and were called back a few weeks later to take another test to see how well they remembered the content.

It was proven that students who received their scores right after fully completing the first test (delayed feedback) were more likely to do a lot better on the second test compared to students who received their scores after each question on the original test (instant feedback).

Delayed feedback helps stimulate students’ minds, as it allows them to skip the question and come back later. Instant feedback tends to force students to pick a random letter, without actually trying to fully understand the question, because they are not allowed to revisit the question later.

Giving students the opportunity to revisit a question means that they can use the remainder of their test time to come up with an educated guess as to what the answer is. Even if their guess ends up being incorrect, students are much more likely to then remember the correct answer when given their corrected test. 

Studying, and the way that one goes about doing it, also plays a massive role in determining how well one does on a test. A common mistake made by a multitude of students is procrastinating on studying, and regretting it later.  

“I know there’s a lot of students who have that cram session the night before an exam,” physics teacher Michael Lordan said. “If your cram session is reducing the sleep that you’re getting the night before an exam, it just seems silly. It seems like you’re almost doing more harm than good at some point.”

A common misconception is that reading the textbook and taking notes is the only way to study. Reading a textbook can help with understanding the material, but studies have shown that retrieval practice, where the individual is able to write (or speak) to respond to questions about the topic they are studying, is significantly more effective. 

Whether it’s completing practice worksheets or making Quizlet flashcard sets and revising them, as long as the studying consists of evaluating the things you know throughout, retrieval practice can help students gain an awareness of what topics they do not know. This then allows them to spend more time and energy into fully understanding those concepts. 

“I study with a friend, especially because we’re both struggling in the same areas and it really helps,” Nazareno said. “Studying with a partner and being able to talk and share [my] thoughts out loud helps reinforce [the material] in my head.”

With the new remote learning format, many teachers have resorted to using projects instead of tests to assess what students know. 

“I teach college prep physics and for that class we did a project where they had a bunch of different scenarios and they identified and analyzed each one,” Lordan said. “In the other class, AP Physics 1, we [had] a final but it was a no-harm final. There were a lot of students who didn’t even try on that part of the final, they just left those ones blank.” 

The issue with testing is that, despite it not being the favored technique, it is the most conventional for teachers to assess what students have learned throughout a certain period of time. 

“The whole system is very imperfect, because we’re supposed to define you with this one letter,” Lerner said. “I think the whole area of assessments is really problematic. My interest, and obligation as a teacher, is to have the assessment scores be, as best I can, a fair reflection of the [student’s] knowledge and skills to try to give them the best opportunity to know what it is that they’re shooting for.” 

The pure fear of doing poorly on an exam is what can lead students to actually doing poorly on the exam. Studies have shown that high stress levels can cause cortisol levels in the body to increase. 

Cortisol is a hormone that is used for a variety of purposes in the body. For example, it can control blood pressure, reduce inflammation, increase the production of glucose and it also plays a role in the body’s natural fight or flight response. 

Having too much or too little cortisol in the body can lead to problems such as excessive weight gain or loss, which shows that having a moderate level of cortisol is ideal. Moderate stress levels  can still be a good thing, as stress is proven to motivate individuals. It can help with boosting memory, and has even been proven to help significantly with the heart and immune system.

Too much or too little stress are proven to be unhealthy, whereas having a moderate level of stress is proven to be healthier. Drawing by Aashi Venkat.

Too much stress can also be detrimental, which means that it is important for students to ensure that their stress levels are maintained at a healthy amount. 

“There’s often resources for students to get help, and I’d recommend that they turn to either their peers or their teachers for support when they need [it],” Lordan said. “I think it’s unfortunate, because a lot of the students who should reach out the most are the ones that don’t reach out at all.”

Tests in general have been proven effective in assessing student knowledge, but that does not necessarily mean that testing is the best technique. There really is no method that is beneficial to every single student, because every student is different. This means that the most effective technique would likely be cycling through the multiple different methods (for example, having a test for one unit but a project for another) to then hopefully be able to get an accurate representation of how well students understand a certain concept. 

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