To test or not to test
By Andrew Nurse
Do midterms make sense? Do tests ? Quiz? Finals?
These questions describe the scope of a discussion that has recently sparked much discussion among historians on Twitter. The conversation was both relevant and timely. It is appropriate because it goes to the heart of teaching and learning; this is timely because Covid-19 – and a range of other factors – have encouraged a reconsideration of pedagogy.
“Back then” exams of all kinds were common. In fact, a range of disciplines still consider it a fundamental component of their pedagogy.
Why are they doing this? Are these assessment methods useful in higher education?
The short answer to these questions depends on the course objectives, the level of the course, the course goals and objectives, and a range of other factors. I’m sure there are some important and complex distinctions between tests, exams, midterms, etc.
I would say, however, that these distinctions are less important than instructional design and I would like to try using this blog post to answer that question under the general heading of testing. For the sake of argument, in history, a test tends to involve some sort of individual written assessment, taken in class or during a more formal examination period. They can and do take different forms. Of course, the tests can also be done online and some of my colleagues also drew inspiration from the practices of language disciplines and introduced oral tests and exams. These practices can be an important part of teaching and learning.
It’s important to note, however, that there is a downside to testing. If any test is taken in isolation, that is, if it is organized as a one-off assessment, it is not a particularly effective tool for student assessment or learning. . While the purpose of testing is to assess what students have learned and how their subject mastery compares to that of others, testing has its drawbacks. He tends to favor short-term memory and rote recall. Its ability to measure long-term knowledge retention is much more limited. More weighted tests (for example, midterms or finals that have high course weights) have another problem: they seem to encourage cheating. At first glance, therefore, the tests do not seem to have too many advantages.
Still, let’s not be too quick to dismiss testing altogether. In order for testing to become an effective part of teaching and learning, we need to ensure that it is part of the overall pedagogy of the course. If the test doesn’t work for your goals, don’t use it. But, this alignment issue needs to be taken seriously. Testing can be a very useful tool to facilitate student learning.
Don’t think of a test as an assessment. On the contrary, for tests to be effective, we must consider them as part of our teaching strategy. Whenever possible, testing should be integrated as part of a low-stake formative assessment. In other words, the test should help students learn material and not just assess their knowledge. A well-designed test should relate to both coursework and other assessment and learning strategies.
In a course that I teach as a team at Mount Allison, for example, we have a concept test that aims to encourage students to learn the key concepts we work with. The items we test are often threshold concepts. Threshold concepts help students master other elements of their subject matter and, when taught well, change their perception of the subjects studied. It can include class, gender, colonialism, state formation, or a whole range of others. The key is that threshold concepts are important for both the course and the curriculum; their mastery helps students understand other aspects of the profession of historian.
Understanding colonialism in the Canadian context, for example, helps students discover a wide range of other acts, policies, events, and processes. It allows them to see and think about the Canadian story in a stimulating and different way.
We all have threshold concepts even if we don’t call them that. We also rely on events, processes, personalities, dates and key facts that we want our students to learn. If these concepts, dates, facts, etc., are important, why shouldn’t we have a method of evaluation to at least indicate to students their importance?
A concept test can do more than just assess understanding of these basic components of a course. Like all tests, the test itself will encourage some students to study. But we shouldn’t leave our key concepts there with just one test. Instead, we also need to incorporate them into our lessons early on, immediately signaling their importance to students.
I suspect most instructors are already doing this, or something similar. If you don’t use threshold concepts a lot, start with your key theoretical issues or the narratives you engage with. Explain to the students why they are important, why you chose them, and why they are excited.
In addition to the test, I recommend my colleagues to include other homework that works with the same materials. For example, you can include a brainstorming exercise (a learning journal entry, a message on a discussion board, a classroom or virtual “free writing”) related to the same material.
A reflection exercise is an exercise where students are asked to consider what they have learned and why this knowledge is important. This type of exercise works with what is called “activation of prior knowledge”. As we learn new things, we tend to integrate them into the framework of our existing knowledge. Reflection exercises encourage students to consider the character and nature of new knowledge, skills and competences. This is useful if the course materials add to the knowledge. It is very useful if there are aspects of your teaching that pose fundamental challenges to students’ preconceptions. A reflection exercise should be placed before a test (or, mid-term) to aid the learning process.
Tests can also be linked downstream. Key terms or concepts should reappear in subsequent work, such as a final exam. Don’t block the material, test it, then leave it for the rest of the lesson.
The final exam, for example, may ask students to apply concepts they have learned, incorporate important facts that have been taken into account in a course, or assess competing historiographic interpretations. An essay-focused final exam may require students to grasp key concepts, explain them, and use them in response to historical problems or another question.
In the case of Canadian colonialism, students could relate the concept to the Indian Act, residential schools, the policy of “peasant agriculture”, the law against the potlatch, or a range of other developments. The bottom line is that the essay asks students to rethink their understanding of the concept and deploy it in a more sustained way.
The last point to note is the “test effect”. One of the interesting findings from studies of teaching and learning is that taking a test helps students learn the subject. In other words, tests are assessments, but they can also be learning tools in themselves. Studies show that students learn by taking a test, and they also learn if a test is repeated. Granted, it can be annoying, but a pre-test or an online version can work in the same direction.
What does it all mean?
This means that in various forms, testing can be an important part of learning, although it may not work for you or your class. A course geared towards primary research or making applications or documentaries, among others, may have different goals and testing may not be a good educational solution. However, with minimal reorganization of lessons, testing can be used effectively to promote learning. For these reasons, I would recommend it.
Andrew Nurse is the Purdy Crawford Teaching and Learning Professor and Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.
 Thanks to Dr Brian Gettler for starting this thread on midterm exams.
 James Lang, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2013).
 James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2016).
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