Frequent Testing Improves Academic Preparation and Performance

January 7th, 2014 No Comments Other

More students from low-income households have been gaining access to higher education, but many still enter university lacking the basic content knowledge they need in order to excel. 

Students from poorer schools also rarely possess the necessary self-regulated learning skills, which prevents them from effectively preparing for exams and assessments by taking notes, studying independently, applying critical thinking skills and monitoring and evaluating personal progress. 

Helping these students develop basic learning skills has remained a challenge for higher education providers, but a recent study from The University of Texas at Austin has found that a combination of frequent testing and immediate feedback could play a key role in improving preparation and performance. 

Previous research has shown that test taking can improve learning for students of all ages, but the time and effort required to write and grade exams for larger classes made it difficult for educators to incorporate frequent testing into their courses.

In order to overcome this hurdle, psychology professors Samuel Gosling and James Pennebaker developed an online teaching and learning platform called TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research).

“Sam Gosling, my co-author and co-teacher, and I had been teaching large introductory psychology classes together for several years,” said Pennebaker. 

“Sam had read somewhere about the value of daily testing so we went ahead and programmed that into the software. Although there were a lot of problems initially, we were amazed at how effectively the system worked.

Not until the end of the first semester of teaching that first class did we see the striking results: students did much better in their performance than students in previous years.” 

The platform, designed to provide students with recurring and immediate feedback on their performance as they learn material, enabled them to determine whether repeated testing could reduce achievement gaps, and result in improvements in current and subsequent course performance.

Gosling and Pennebaker found that although their customized online teaching model proved beneficial for all students, those of low socioeconomic status benefited the most.

Some of the key findings from their research included: 

  • The new teaching system resulted in a 50% reduction in the achievement gap
  • TOWER students performed better in other classes, both in the semester they took the course and in subsequent semester classes.
  • TOWER exam performance was nearly half a letter grade above previous semesters
  • The daily quizzes encouraged students to attend classes at much higher rates.

“The benefit of the testing system is that we are training students how to think and study. Our tests are conceptually very difficult and require people to apply theories or principles to practical problems or vice versa,” explained Pennebaker.

He points out that although such skills are passed on to students by the better secondary schools, poorer schools with overworked teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and students with parents who have little or no higher education, are often unable to impart these critical learning abilities.

“In our experience, lower SES students have succeeded in high schools by memorizing and being organized. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t directly related to performance,” he said.

“With repeated testing, students are trained day after day how to study and take tests. If they aren’t studying efficiently, they will fail each day’s test. It forces them to experiment and see what works better for them.

In traditional classes, there might only be 2-3 exams over the course of the semester. When they fail the first test, they often think it is a fluke and simply study using their old methods at twice the rate. And when they fail the second test, it is almost impossible for them to catch up.” 

Pennebaker stresses the fact that the immediate and personalized feedback played an equally important role in improving students’ performance.

“I’m convinced that daily feedback is the fastest and most efficient way to improve performance,” he commented. “[It] pressed students to attend lectures every day and to keep up with the material. In essence, we stumbled on a number of learning tools that we didn’t even know existed.” 

So what about the numerous studies that say standardized testing is largely ineffective as a way to determine whether or not a student is really learning?

The most recent of such studies found that standardized tests, although good for measuring crystallized intelligence (facts that must be learned or memorized); fall woefully short when it comes to measuring fluid intelligence, which includes the ability to apply critical thinking skills.

If these two findings seem to contradict each other, it’s only because testing has been viewed the wrong way all along; as a tool for measuring intelligence or filtering out low-achieving students.

Frequent testing leads to frequent feedback, which is ultimately the key to improving preparation and performance for all students, regardless of age or socio-economic background, and this makes it one of the most powerful learning tools there is. 

But, in order to start using this tool effectively, old mindsets about testing must change. Rather than that dreaded end of term event, it must be embraced as a regular, even everyday, component of learning. 

Because far from separating students as it has done in the past, testing has the potential to become the medium that levels the playing field. 


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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