Does testing students harm their learning?

So I had an interesting thought today.  I think that testing students, just to see what they know, can actually harm their learning.  Here’s my argument.

Let’s start by assuming that we would like students to be responsible able adults. This is not an unreasonable assumption, I’m sure that all parents want this to be true for their children, although we may disagree about the methods to achieve this end.  

Embedded in the meaning of the word "able" is the ability to learn new stuff.  Without this, students will not be able to succeed in a new global economy.  There is lots of evidence which shows that the rate at which knowledge is currently expanding, what is useful to know today, will not necessarily be useful tomorrow.  Changes in the world will require adults to be able to process and digest new information, perhaps even to reinvent themselves.

The word "responsible" in the context of our implies a certain sense of moral reasoning ability but also the ability to take care of one’s self.  In this second context, we can assume that part of taking care of one’s self is ensuring that the skills and things we have learned are relevant because if they are irrelevant, it will be difficult to maintain a decent standard of living.  In order to ensure we have relevant skills, one would have to be in charge of one’s own learning.

So as educators then, as proxies for the parents of the children in our care, as fulfilling our primary responsibility of helping students become responsible able adults, we must provide them opportunities both to learn how to learn and also how to best manage their own learning. We can easily give them many learning experiences, and teach them how to reflect upon their learning so that they are able to learn on their own.  In fact, I would think that schools which are successful do just this, and that many students come out of high school with some ability to master new material on their own.

However, teaching the ability to take responsibility for one’s own learning is not happening at many schools.  How many young adults are able to take mastery of their own learning?  One of the reasons that this happens, I argue, is that students are very rarely, if ever, put in charge of assessing what they know.  This responsibility is the prerogative of the teacher, and the teacher alone.

One of the ways in which we, as teachers, exercise our right to assess students is by giving them tests.  Perhaps students in some courses don’t do tests, maybe they do some other form of assessment, but because they are not in charge of what assessments they do, students will likely fail to learn how to take personal responsibility for their learning.  Every assessment teachers create without student input is a failed opportunity for that student to learn how to assess their own learning.

Another way in which we fail to give students the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning is choosing the curriculum they should be covering for them.  As educators, we self-select what we want to learn in many ways.  For example, we choose our professional development sessions, we decide to which conferences we want to go, and we select which books we want to read.  We even decide with which other professionals we want to collaborate.  In fact, if we weren’t allowed to do these things for ourselves, we would (and do) complain bitterly and feel as if our professional judgement was in question.

Students need to be given some of the same freedoms as educators to choose what they learn.  Perhaps initially educators would have a lot of the say in the lower age groups and could model ways in which learning opportunities can be selected, but as children get older they must have more choice about what they learn. Most schools already include some freedom of choice in terms of course selection, but rare is the school that gives complete choice over what students learn to the students.

Both assessing students and choosing curriculum for them create arbitrary boundaries on what students are expected to know and people who are given boundaries will tend to stop at them.  How often have you heard that a student has forgotten what they learned because "they didn’t need to know it anymore"?  Have you had many students come to you after a unit is complete with more questions about that topic, perhaps at a more advanced stage? Why have the students stopped being interested in your unit? The unit is over, so the need and desire to learn more about it is gone.

How can we do our secondary job, which is to ensure that our students learn the skills and content that we want them to learn?  We can start by teaching kids how to assess their learning, how to create rubrics that will demonstrate understanding, how to grade their own assignments, and how to construct assignments, tests, and other assessments, for themselves.  We can model how to construct assessments by giving some of our own we have generated.  We do not have to stop assessing our students, we just need to gradually shift this responsibility from ourselves to them, so that by the time they are ready to leave high school, they are able to reliably determine for themselves if they have learned.

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