Change Testing into Recalling

Can teachers change "testing" into "recalling"? With retrieval practice, students can improve how they study.

Can teachers change “testing” into “recalling”?

I’ll spoil the surprise: yes.

Of course. Teachers accomplish so much with so little. Often this process is called retrieval practice.

What is this noise though, the recent news that testing isn’t bad? For years the situation was testing is bad. Now the news reports (and my Facebook feed is full) that research that recall helps students. The overall message is that certain types of testing is unproductive, but testing to recall information produces different results.

As an educator, I immediately started brainstorming thoughts concerning the differences between testing and recalling. Is a test not a test, a test—a test? This new research reveals that the recall— that testing provides—is beneficial.

Immediately, my thoughts considered Bloom’s Taxonomy and its stages.

Can teachers change "testing" into "recalling"? With retrieval practice, students can improve how they study.

I sorted through the quotes and facts. After reading several articles and responses from academics, I realized that my thoughts about changing testing into recalling fell into three categories.

1. Grades attached?

Never attach a grade, always attach a grade—perhaps a middle ground. Whatever method for recall, students and teachers will be crazy if every final assessment receives a grade. (Can you imagine recording the grades? Grading the papers?) It would stress everyone. Years ago, I graded every grammar assignment from my high school students. I regret that practice.

My initial idea is that grading the recall activities would slow the process and discourage honest answers. Sometimes students need the freedom from grades in order to make mistakes and get out the “bugs” of learning. Not every step in the learning process requires a grade.

2. Teacher attitude.

If every test is a big deal, does that mean none of them are big deals? Like so much, the manner the teacher approaches recalling will set the tone for students. Approaching a class with a process backed by research means teachers have confidence and an organized method. For instance, Christopher Chase highlights how recalling can be a step in any lesson plan:

It’s only through repeated application of “information about something” that ideas are transformed into deep comprehension, real ability and useful “real world” skills.

Explain this to students. Tell them why they are going through the steps of recall.

Teachers’ attitudes? I’m excited to implement these ideas, and when students see positive results, I think they’ll understand why.

Implementing recall during class would be much like basketball practice: the team takes practice seriously, is free to make mistakes and learn from them, and then feels confident during the game from practice.

3. Results for students.

Will students see positive results? A common way I use recall is with a quick, short multiple-choice questions for reading assignments. Previously, I believed these quizzes’ main purpose was to give me feedback – to give the teacher information for what needed more review, what students already understood. Specifically with reading, I could correct misconceptions concerning key facts because these short quizzes didn’t ask for analysis – simply recall.

I can’t imagine not using that feedback, but now we have this added bonus of recall. Annie Murphy Paul writes in “Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning”:

Research in cognitive science and psychology shows that testing, done right, can be an exceptionally effective way to learn. Taking tests, as well as engaging in well-designed activities before and after tests, can produce better recall of facts—and deeper and more complex understanding—than an education without exams. But a testing regime that actively supports learning, in addition to simply assessing, would look very different from the way American schools “do” testing today.

How do schools do it today? We stress students, because we are stressed, because money and jobs are tied to the testing. It’s a nasty circle that is proven ineffective by research. Testing can provide meaningful feedback, and it can help students learn. The proponents of high stakes testing need reminded of this research.

Finally, I’ve told students before that stomach crunches are awful, that I dislike them. They are repetitive. They are effective though. I’ve likened stomach crunches to studying. It may not be a perfect metaphor, but it may not be too far off either.

Recall is effective. Drilling students without any other activity – harmful. Constant testing that stresses students, that doesn’t relate to students – harmful.

My gut feeling is that teachers knew this. Changing testing into recalling? It seems teachers have already done this. We have the research, so what now?

A bonus of teaching older students is the ability to tell students about this set of research. (Some of my students will be teachers in four short years). Explain this research to them. Tell them why recall matters, and that you are taking some of the pressure of studying off them. You are teaching them a skill they will use to learn facts about jobs or a college major.

This needs mentioned to politicians and other fans of the barrage of testing students endure. As usual, we teachers are our students’ voices. We can change testing into recalling, and change education along the way.

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