Testing – a double edged sword.

As teachers we’ve all had those moments when, eyes shining, tongue loosed by the excitement of the moment, we share a fascinating nugget of detail with our class. We’ve all also experienced the dull deflation of that enthusiasm when our students respond “But is this in the exam? Do we actually need to know this?” It seems our focus on testing has created a generation of students who view their studies purely as a means to an end and have lost the ability to enjoy learning for its own sake. Such responses from my classes normally trigger an agony of soul searching on my part. I question whether my desire to get my students good results means these sorts of responses are my own fault, a just retribution for my desire to show off my teaching prowess through a healthy end of year results spreadsheet. The same problem is seen with primary children asking what they need to do to get to the next level rather than enquiring further into a subject. We see the same problem with GCSE English courses in which the easiest books are chosen and only read in extract form, to optimize exam results. I also despise (yes it is that strong) the nonsensical hoop jumping drill that consumes hours of teaching time and is only to ensure student responses conform to exam rubrics so they can get the marks they deserve.

These drawbacks of testing are explained in a blog post by Daisy Christodoulou who took part in a debate recently with Toby Young, Tristram Hunt and Tony Little on the subject of testing. Daisy explains that the proposition of the debate was that tests were ‘essentially a necessary evil…in many ways inimical to good education…Tony Little said that our focus should not be on exams, but on ensuring a love of learning.’ In her post Daisy argues coherently that testing is nonetheless very useful for the reliable feedback it provides and the way the ‘testing effect’ aids memory. I agree but would go further than arguing for teacher set tests. I question the assumption that external exams such as GCSEs and A levels are just a necessary evil, inimical to good education. I’ll explain further.

A week ago my school had their year 13 parent’s evening. The talk was all of university applications and predicted grades. Students had been investigating universities and realisation had dawned that they were not going to get to the prestigious institutions their ambitions desired without those crucial A grades. Every year students that had never quite been able to take their studies seriously wise up to reality, you can see a new purpose in their demeanour as they ‘set aside childish things’ and get down to some serious study. External exams are essential for good education because without them too many students would never summon up that motivation to learn, or to learn enough, in enough detail and never reach a standard they would otherwise be capable of. Witness what happens when teachers are told their subject will still be taught but no longer examined at GCSE or A level. You may have noticed the campaigns to stop A levels being scrapped in languages such as Polish. Teachers know perfectly well that what is examined generally IS what is taken seriously. Where exams aren’t used other forms of competition tend to arise to serve the same purpose.

The assumption that motivation in education should be intrinsic goes pretty unquestioned but while most teachers would profess to believe this, their behaviour would suggest otherwise. Why is it that every year children are under so much stress from SATs? The children have no reason to take these seriously. It is the teachers that explain the importance of these tests to the pupils – to ensure they take the tests seriously, that they pay attention and work hard. Researchers expect a significant diminution in performance on tests when the stakes are low and have to factor this into their analysis.

Eric Kalenze said in his talk at ResearchEd that extrinsic motivation is seriously underrated in education and I agree with him. On the one hand we must avoid bribing children when they would or could work happily with no reward, this is clearly counterproductive. We also want to skilfully withdraw extrinsic rewards as we can see the children are becoming capable of appreciating the content for its own sake. We want to stimulate our students’ curiosity, help them to appreciate what they are learning. However, human motivation is complex. Just how many children ever would learn to their full potential with only intrinsic motivators? I’ve certainly heard of some but even then enthusiasms tend to be selective. I can’t help thinking that if avoidance of extrinsic motivators was an educational panacea Steiner Schools would have taken off in a way they never have.

Just how many students would be sitting in our secondary schools or our A level classes if it were not compulsory and they didn’t need proof of their learning for success later in life? Could it be that external exams rather than being harmful to deeper learning are actually the very REASON why children end up learning lots? If, at 16, it had made no difference to my future whether I understood maths GCSE I might just have spent more time following my enthusiasm for 19thC novels and neglected mathematics entirely. I have also known countless students fall in love with a subject as they study but the initial impetus for that study was the desire for exam success. To really excel in a subject takes serious hard work and discipline. Often the rewards of study are only really appreciated after much toil. Even as an adult can I really say that my motivation to learn things I find interesting is purely for its own sake? So often that genuine curiosity is mixed with a wish for acknowledgment of our erudition or a desire to bolster our own self esteem through feeling learned.

Exams are a double edged sword. True, that focus on exam success over the subject matter taught for its own sake is undoubtedly harmful. We must work to limit that harm while acknowledging that exam certificates are often the very reason our students choose to study. The idea most children would learn more without exams is untested idealism and ignores lived reality.

Every September I ask my new year 12 politics students why they are studying A levels. Every year they tell me it is so they can go to university and get a good career. At the end of every year I ask them if they are pleased they now understand so much more about politics – and they are. Job done!

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6 thoughts on “Testing – a double edged sword.

  1. The problem with exams as extrinsic motivators is the incentives they offer vary so widely depending where you are in the hierarchy of achievement. If you’re competing for a top grade that’s a strong incentive: work hard and we’ll tell you you’re excellent. For those in the middle the incentive is weak: work hard and we’ll tell you you’re average is not an inspirational offer. For the unfortunate children at the bottom the grade is a disincentive. If your target is a D or E then school is saying: try your hardest and prove you’re worse than average. Who would take up that offer?

    Grades are great for the kids at the top. Their effect on the system as a whole is toxic.

    1. I agree that for those unlikely to achieve marketable grades there is no incentive but why on earth would taking a crucial motivator from the majority solve the problem for the minority?

  2. Whenever I hear the motivation argument, I always think of the driving test. Exams should be there for those who wish to take the exams. So-called ‘middle achievers’ may not be middle achievers, given a little more time to study the syllabus. Public exams are not fixed in time. They can be taken at any age,

    1. I completely agree with this. I am not totally sure what the answer is or how it could be structured in a general sense for all subjects. My son is taking Algebra through ALEKS an online program. He is moving a bit more slowly than I would personally like to see BUT it is individualized and he is only given concepts that he is ready for. If he bombs an assessment–he simply goes through it again. In the classroom it would be here’s your F we’re moving on and, of course, in sequential subjects like math, that is setting them up for continued failure. If he takes 3 semesters to get through Algebra but he truly understands 90 % of it that is probably better than taken it once, getting a D or F and then retaking the entire class (taught the same way, at the same speed) and maybe getting a B or C. Better for the continuity of his math learning, better for his self esteem, and only takes three semesters instead of four–opening the possibility of other coursework in his schedule.

      I definitely believe that many “middle achievers” could be “high achievers” under a different system.

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