Testing 4

In a posting last September I briefly discussed the notion of letting a test be a learning experience rather than simply an assessment. The three most important parts of doing so were 1) setting essay questions in advance, 2) letting students take time to guide themselves through preparation for an answer, with the teacher ready to pitch in at need, and 3) actually writing the essay after a momentary surge of excitement and interest caused by a lottery to choose which question to answer.

I want to return to that subject because of an article that recently appeared in The New York Times. It reviewed research showing that students remember what they “learn” better by being tested on it than by working up “concept maps” or by doing little review sessions. It is important to note the article’s summary of the experimental protocol: “Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes [emphasis added].”

A moment’s thought will tell us why an essay, even a “free form” one, is intellectually both more demanding and more rewarding than a concept map. A simple line drawn between two words or phrases suggests a relationship per se but tells us nothing about it. By contrast, even a “free form” essay is not so free as to dispense with the parts of speech, which means that it will link concept-words with prepositional phrases, clauses, and conjunctions that express in some fashion exactly what kind of relationship those words have. Drawing lines is by comparison a barren evasion, a mini-holiday from responsibility. Even less thought will tell us why an essay is superior to little review sessions, which so often amount to nothing more than students rattling off details to each other like the young George Orwell conning his history facts with black-negress mnemonics. How many minutes after the examination for the Harrow History Prize did he remember the names of the battles in the War of the Roses?

The article says that “why retrieval testing works is still unknown.” I have a couple of possible explanations. The first depends on my understanding of William James. According to him, “what interests us is real,” but the world of reality is actually “Many Worlds.” After taking an interest, however cursory, in something, we place it in one of reality’s Many Worlds using our judgment. He says further that we place these worlds in a hierarchy of importance that depends on our temperament and mental inclinations. In effect, some of the Many Worlds interest us more than others and are therefore more real.

Most people do not rank the world of abstract relationships high among the Many Worlds, so that when Bertrand Russell reports in his autobiography that learning geometry was like being in love for the first time, most people do not share his delight in that reality. They are not nearly so interested in abstract relationships as Russell, and we don’t fault them for it. Most people think of abstract relationships in connection with concrete or sensory problems when they think of them at all. It is strange in this light for educational psychologists or cognitive scientists see the “gold standard” for examinations in concept mapping, a technique that puts a premium on the establishment of abstract relationships, sometimes expressed in a line without a name and therefore without a “stinging term,” as James calls those interesting little bits of reality that compel our attention.

To understand why writing an essay test works better than a concept map, we should revise what we think of the “cognitive and affective domains” of learning that we heard about in teachers’ college. Cognition and affect do not have separate domains: they are the condominium of intellect. When we are interested in something, we cognize it better, more fully, and with greater relish than when we are not. The networks of interest that we establish run from their high points in the worlds we cherish down through other worlds to those about which we are indifferent.

Good teachers complement students’ predilections by establishing extrinsic patterns of interest to connect the Many Worlds, just in case not everyone wants, like young Russell, to fall on geometry with a tiger’s appetite or, like the young Samuel Johnson, to read thousands of books by his eighteenth year. One interest universally established is in the results of a test. Whatever else we have to teach high-school students, we usually don’t have to get them interested in a test grade. (The student too flat and feckless to be interested by anyone in anything is another matter.)

A teacher who sets essay questions has two things going for his students’ learning: one is the interest of the question itself, and the other is the interest provoked by the situation of the test. When the student works up notes on an essay answer and then writes it, he is propelled by test conditions and his interest in the question to establish the concept-work needed to give a shape to the details and in complementary fashion to use those details as the factual anchor of his ideas. He expresses relationships in language not lines, thereby getting them more exactly. He has chosen the language for an exercise in which he has an interest. All these things work together to make the material more memorable than it would be as a jumble of detail or a wind of unsecured ideas. Used correctly, testing doesn’t just examine thought and memory: it secures them.

But the testing-and-accountability people should not think this insight vindicates their approach. Their testing is not an invitation to the exercise of directed and participatory intellect characteristic of an essay exam with a generous run-up. The competency tests favored by them do not invite anything except pointing (at The Right Answer). They are entirely summative, not at all formative; and they are summative in a bad way.

The constructivist Howard Gardner rightly sees the results reported in this article as a challenge to constructivism, but surely a large mind is capable of recognizing the challenge as an opportunity to enlarge the possibilities of the classroom beyond the constraints of a single approach. Essay questions and other tasks set by teachers combine direction by teachers and construction by students in a synthesis worth pursuing. Surely there are more such possibilities?

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