Why flunking exams is actually a good thing

Posted on September 30, 2014

Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later. That is: The pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.

The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It’s a way of enriching and altering memory. Bjork’s experiment suggests that pretesting serves to prime the brain, predisposing it to absorb new information.

Pretests allow students to get a glimpse of the teacher’s hand, of what they’ll be up against. Wrong guesses expose our fluency illusions, our false impression that we “know” the capital of Eritrea because we just saw it or once studied it.

Many teachers complain that a focus on testing limits their ability to fully explore subjects with their students. Others attack tests as woefully incomplete measures of learning, blind to all varieties of creative thinking. But the emerging study of pretesting flips that logic on its head. “Teaching to the test” becomes “learning to understand the pretest,” whichever one the teacher chooses to devise. The test, that is, becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.

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Category(s):Academic Issues

Source material from New York Times


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