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The Problem with Testing

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 4, 2006
Latest Update: February 4, 2006

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When testing is used as a communications process it serves a useful purpose. Answering questions about a topic I have studied tells me whether I have mastered the information well enough to be able to respond coherently. Sometimes, I recognize the the information, recall having read it, but can't recall the precise information asked about in the question. That should serve to alert both me and whoever is teaching me that I need to review the concept or the facts in question. That's called feedback.

But feedback is most effective when it provides course correction, allows me to correct, and then remeasures to be sure that I've got the concept straight. Our testing rarely includes these last steps. Instead the tests provides labels, like A, B, C, D, F. If we omit the correction step, we have confirmed that practice is needed, but we haven't provided the opportunity for success. In nurturant family model teaching, we insist upon providing opportunities for success. We don't want our students to fail. We work with them until they succeed.

Sometimes I think I know the answer to the question, but it turns out that I have misunderstood the concept. I may have understood a piece of the concept, but have failed to notice a fine point. For example in coding data, one must code the answer, a 1 for yes, a 2 for no. So a part of the coding of data is recognizing that you need a code book to tell you what number from 0 to 9 you are to code for yes, and what number for no. The second part of that concept is that you must also have access to the code book to tell you what the address for that code is. That is, what place in the formatted data should you look for the number.

Some people pick up the first part of the concept, that a number is used in computerized data input, not "yes" or "no." But they miss the second part of the concept, that you must be told where to put that number so that others will be able to tell what it represents. like the answer to question number 15.

Sometimes teachers forget that there is no such thing as "one trial learning." They tell you what coding is, and then they assume that you "got it." We had a graduate assistant once who had a fit when students returned surveys improperly coded. "You call that coding?" he demanded. He was convinced our students were "incompetent." Experience prevailed, and we got him to see that the students had understood the first part of the concept. They did assign the proper numbers for yes and no. But they missed the "address" part of the concept. By offering a "good dog" for the part of the concept they did "get," and reinstructing on the "address" part, then giving them more surveys to code, we provide an opportunity for success. Good nurturant teaching.

After many years of experimentation here's how we manage to gather evidence of learning without suggesting failure.

  • First, if you study like me, you know some parts of the text better than others. Sometimes you get interrupted, and the interruption may make you forget some details. When the test comes along, and the teacher has picked the questions, you're counting on the fact that the questions picked won't be about something you don't recall. I would imagine that's what led to an extra question, so that you have some choice. But there's still the possibility that there won't be a very good correspondence between the teacher's choice and the parts of the text that stood out for you.

  • To let you know what stands out for us, we provide defintions of concepts and suggest that you should understand them. But we still cover an enormous amount of material. And you have other classes and conflicting demands. Yes, you could work harder, but we all get few enough "good dogs" as it is, and have conflicting demands in this fast-paced urban environment.

  • Management literature speaks of the myths of the corporate world. One of them is that you will get promoted if you just work hard enough. That is a myth. You will get promoted if you are careful enough to be sure that you supervisor knows what you are doing and if you don't threaten the supervisor, as in one-up-manship or fashion or display of creative responses to crises. Even if your job doesn't require it, you need to spend time with your supervisor and take the time to put your name and your willingness to move on in his/her locus of awareness. supervisors promote people who they believe will go on playing with the team. People whose names come to mind when promotions are available. People whom they believe will be on their side if they need it in the future. Work places are not straight meritocracies. They are political. Hard work is good; but it's not the only concern, by a long shot.

  • In an advanced undergraduate or graduate class, it's important to stress oral discussion. In the real world, most people talk about things lots more than they write about them. So we provide a forum for lots of practice in talking to one another. But we also want evidence of our written prowess to enhance the reputation of our school and to engage in discussion with our service community.

  • If we were to offer an essay exam, we figure one of about four questions as the final exam. But a final exam would not give us time for collaborative writing and opportunities for success. So we ask you, when you to choose over the course of the semester four issues or dialogs in which you wish to participate on tranform_dom. If you choose to participate in the public forum, just post on Learning Records, the message number. I'll upload the message and our collaborative dialog, and this will be a part of our collaborative evaluation project, and will remain on Dear Habermas, for your future pride of reference.

  • If, for whatever reason, you prefer not to participate in the collaborative writing project, you should still follow the disscussions on transform_dom, and still choose an issue or dialog to which you wish to respond. Send you message directly to jeanne and it will not be available to others. You should still follow the collaborative writing project on Dear Habermas, because much of my editing and contributions will help you in your own editing of your private submissions.

  • Please don't submit every message for the writing project. Choose four over the semester that you think give a good picture of what you have learned. Do a spell check and grammar check in Word before you send it. Please don't submit hard copy. Susan and I don't have the time to type it up for you, if you want to include it in the collaborative writing project. Please be sure you spread your submission out over the semester. We won't take them all in the last week. In this way we can work together so that you can edit your work, check your sources, include others' contributions, and display work you can be proud of for a long time. You can also follow what others are submitting and learn and get ideas from their work. Collaborative work is now being emphasized at Harvard Graduate School of Business. It's the corporate way.

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