Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Just a moment for learning | Better tests, better learning

| Post by Cory Curl |

Note: We're taking time this week to explore what families and communities might want to know about what's new and what's around the corner for student tests in Kentucky, organized around five major purposes. Today, we're focusing on the first and most important: student learning.

  • Learning
  • Informing
  • Clarifying
  • Benchmarking
  • Measuring

  • Many tests have stakes attached -- a grade, a license, a scholarship spot -- and these stakes make us nervous. This post is not about these tests: it's about tests with little or no stakes at all. This might not even fit your definition of a test! That's fine!

    This post is about tests that are just between us and our brains. They create learning.

    I'm wary of adding to your list of edu-jargon words, but this might be a new one for many of you: retrieval. We too often think of learning as getting information into our brains, but it turns out that long-term learning, knowledge, and understanding emerge from getting information out of our brains. And when information lays quiet in our brains too long without being retrieved, it fades away. The Pixar film, Inside Out, depicted this process vibrantly.

    Image downloaded from Pixar

    This means that done well, short tests or quizzes can be an important strategy for learning. As well, prompts for students to quickly reflect on or summarize what they've learned, flashcards, problem sets, and other similar methods of "retrieval practice" have been shown to be effective learning strategies. Stakes are not necessary, but effort -- and sometimes struggle -- are. Learning is the reward!

    I've benefited from my own learning about retrieval practice in three ways:

    First, as the parent of a first-grade student who brings home graded and non-graded quizzes, work that includes reflection prompts, and sets to make flashcards, I can better understand how these strategies are supporting his long-term learning and incorporate them into our learning time at home (including the occasional spelling "cwis").

    Second, as a professional who attends quite a lot of meetings, I now take just a moment or two after each meeting to free-write key takeaways and action steps (without looking at my notes). This practice has helped me make deeper connections among the various areas of work that we do.

    Finally, as a graduate school student taking challenging courses with a brain that's on its fifth decade of operation, I know that listening, taking notes, and even understanding a concept during class does not mean that I've learned a thing. I test myself on important concepts ("What are the two assumptions that need to be met for this research method?") after doing pre-class readings, after class, and then at various points in time afterward. These are concepts I need to learn and do not want to fade away.

    To learn more about retrieval and other learning strategies:
  • Books and guides on Retrieval Practice
  • The Science of Learning from Deans for Impact
  • "Students should be tested more, not less" by teacher/author Jessica Lahey, The Atlantic

  • Next time, we will move out from student and the student's brain, to how tests can inform decisions that educators and parents make to benefit students.

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