In this issue of The Brilliant Report: An extended version of the piece on affirmative testing that appeared in the New York Times.
More to say about affirmative testing

Note to Brilliant readers: In journalism, it's the role of editors to push for brevity and concision. We writers often have more to say. I thought I'd share with you an extended version of my recent piece on affirmative testing (the version that ran on the New York Times website is here). And I thought I'd remind you, too, that you can take advantage of a 10 percent discount on my affirmative testing e-course, "Turn Testing Into Learning," by entering the code NYT10OFF when you enroll here—but only for a short while longer; the discount expires at midnight tonight.—Annie

Although we're only a few weeks into a new school year, it seems that we're having the same old fights about tests. Opt out versus stay in, autonomy versus accountability, local control versus common standards . . . This fall, let’s have a different conversation about testing. Let’s talk about how we could make tests work for students—yes, students.
During more than a decade of turmoil over testing, we’ve heard from every affected constituency: parents, teachers, school leaders, government officials, testing company executives. But we have yet to hear much about how we could organize tests around the needs of students themselves. What if we were to design a testing program that had students at its heart? What would that look like?
Many would no doubt respond that if we were to put students’ interests first, we would get rid of tests altogether. But that would be a mistake. Tests are the best way—bar none—to help students achieve three crucial aims.
First: Tests are unsurpassed as a way to support student recall. Why? Because tests require students to pull knowledge from their own heads, which research shows is the best way to ensure retention of what they’ve learned.
Second: Tests are unsurpassed as a way to enhance student metacognition (that is, awareness of one’s own mental processes). Why? Because in the process of being tested and getting feedback, students fine-tune their sense of what they know and don’t know.
And third: Tests are unsurpassed as a way to nurture non-cognitive skills (those capacities outside the traditional academic domain that turn out to be so critical to educational and professional success). Why? Because tests represent a kind of controlled adversity, an ideal arena for honing skills like resilience and perseverance.
This fall, the conversations we have at parent potlucks and in faculty lounges should include talk about making testing not only about assessment and accountability, but also about learning and growth. Turning such talk into full-scale reality will require accommodations from standardized test companies and from the government agencies that contract with them; more on that below. For the moment, let’s look at how a student-centered testing program would work, and at some steps that parents and teachers can take right now.
Such steps would steer in the direction of what I call “affirmative testing.” Affirmative testing treats tests as occasions for academic learning and personal growth. It supplies a set of techniques and tools supported by empirical evidence, drawn directly from the research of psychologists and cognitive scientists. It can be implemented by parents or teachers (although it’s optimal if both are involved). It doesn’t necessarily require changes in the tests themselves (although a number of changes would be welcome). It involves changing what students do before and after testing, so as to fundamentally alter the experience and meaning of the tests.
Are you skeptical? Allow me to offer some examples of how we could remake testing for our children’s benefit.
We could show students how to study by engaging in self-testing.
Today, studies show, most students apply the least-effective techniques to learn and study on their own: highlighting, underlining, and re-reading. We don’t tell them to do otherwise, because these are likely the methods that we, too, used during our school years. Self-testing—employing the psychological principles of retrieval, spacing, and interleaving—involves an entirely different kind of mental activity, one that fosters learning, bolsters retention, and prepares students for in-school tests far more effectively.
This mental activity is retrieval, which means producing information from one’s own memory, as opposed to passively taking it in. Students can engage in retrieval by taking practice tests, using flashcards, or simply putting aside notes and textbooks and recalling just-read information from memory. Decades of research have shown that retrieval has myriad advantages over conventional studying, including superior retention of what students have learned; better organization of students’ knowledge; reduced “interference” from similar, previously-learned information; more accurate identification of gaps in students’ knowledge; enhanced ability of students to monitor their own thinking; improved transfer of students’ knowledge to new contexts; and an increase in students’ learning from the instructional episode that follows retrieval.
Spacing and interleaving, meanwhile, further enhance the benefits of retrieval. Spacing means spreading out exposures to material to be learned, instead of cramming it all in at once. Spacing out self-tests over time–once every few days, or once each week—leads students to partially forget, and then re-learn, the tested information, with particularly powerful effects on memory. Interleaving means shuffling different types of practice problems into an unpredictable order, so that students don’t know in advance the sort of question they’ll encounter at each turn. Interleaving problems in self-tests gives students practice at a crucial skill: figuring out what kind of problem they’re facing.
Engaging in self-testing at home makes a big difference in how tests at school are experienced. Students who’ve been testing themselves all along have a firm grasp on the material, allowing them to perform well on tests while experiencing less anxiety. The classroom test becomes simply a chance to show what they know they can do. All these are steps that parents can work on with students at home; the teachers among us can institute frequent low- or no-stakes tests in class, and assign self-tests as homework.
We could teach students how to reflect on their preparation for, and performance on, tests.
When graded exams are handed back, most students glance at their scores and stuff them away—missing an ideal moment to engage in metacognition. Educational researchers have figured out how to seize on this moment, with a tool they call an exam wrapper. An exam wrapper is a set of brief instructions, printed on a piece of paper and folded around a corrected test. The instructions lead students through the process of reflecting on how well they prepared for the test, how well they performed, and what they’ll do differently next time.
As parents, we can use an exam wrapper (a template is available here) to guide a conversation on such topics with our children; we can also talk through the test itself, discussing not only what our children got right and wrong but also why their answers were correct or incorrect. Teachers, too, can make it a practice to use exam wrappers, and to provide this kind of extended commentary on test answers, known as elaborated feedback.
We could give students strategies for handling the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that tests can generate.
Many, many students experience test anxiety. Usually they struggle with it on their own, or they’re told to “calm down” or “put it out of your mind”—well-meaning sentiments that can actually exacerbate the problem. There is a better way—actually, a number of better ways. Here are two.
First, arousal reappraisal. This is the practice of taking stock of one’s physiological state, and then deliberately choosing to think about that state in a different way. Before a high-stakes test, for example, students often experience a quickened heartbeat, sweaty palms, and butterflies in the stomach. They interpret these physical cues as meaning, “I’m nervous,” a message from their bodies that causes them to become even more anxious.
However, research finds that students can learn to consciously reappraise the meaning of these physiological cues, and in so doing reduce their anxiety and perform better on tests. After all, we might experience a pounding heartbeat and sweaty palms when we’re boarding a roller coaster, or finding out if we’ve won a contest, or meeting someone we have long admired. Reinterpreting “I’m so nervous” as “I’m so excited” can allow students to turn their state of physiological arousal to their advantage.
Second, expressive writing. An expressive writing exercise directs the student to write for ten minutes before a test about whatever is on the student’s mind. It’s a quick and simple intervention, but research finds that it reduces students’ anxiety and leads them to perform better on tests.
The way it works is this: When students feel anxious while taking a test, some portion of their working memory is taken up by thoughts about that anxiety. Working memory is the mental holding space where we manipulate facts and ideas; its capacity is limited, and any space occupied by anxiety is space that can’t be used to hold facts and ideas concerning the content of the test. When students have the opportunity to write about their thoughts and feelings before a test, they effectively offload their anxiety onto the paper; this offloading leaves their minds with more capacity to address the demands of the test. Both of these are straightforward techniques that parents can share with their children; teachers can incorporate them into the classroom testing routine.
Each of the strategies described above—retrieval, spacing, interleaving; exam wrappers and elaborated feedback; arousal reappraisal and expressive writing—is a simple, effective intervention supported by research. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have developed many more such interventions, using tests and test-related activities to help students increase their resilience, boost their motivation, and strengthen their perseverance and “grit.”
But affirmative testing is more than just a collection of strategies. It’s also a stance, an orientation that insists that testing can be a positive force in promoting student development, both academic and personal. The adoption of these strategies and this stance would begin to transform our students’ experience of school testing right now. But affirmative testing could have an even more powerful impact if we could get standardized testing companies to climb aboard the bandwagon.
Parents, teachers, and school leaders should be calling for changes like these:
• Standardized tests that take the form of frequent, low-stakes exams instead of infrequent high-stakes ones.
• Standardized tests that provide timely and detailed feedback on students’ answers.
• Standardized tests that offer students access to their own data, and the anonymized data of others, so that they can use tests as an occasion to learn about data and its application (a skill every professional in the 21st century workforce will need).
And, while we’re at it, let’s ask for still more:
• Standardized tests that present their results to students in a format that fosters a “growth mindset”—“Highly Proficient,” “Proficient,” and “Not Yet”—as well as tests that offer opportunities to improve and try again.
• Standardized tests that provide occasions for collaborative learning experiences—if not during testing, then before and after (collaboration being another essential 21st century skill).
• Standardized tests that build metacognitive and non-cognitive skill development right into the test-taking experience. (For an example of what I mean, see the work of these researchers at Stanford University and the University of Texas-Austin, who have developed brief online exercises that work to promote a growth mindset and a purpose for learning in students.)
The opt-out movement has encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests. But better than getting rid of tests would be turning tests into promising opportunities. After all, our children will face many tests over the course of their lives—as they proceed through school, as they apply to college or graduate school, as they enter a vocation or a profession. (Our budding doctors and lawyers likely won’t have the choice to opt out of the MCAT or the bar exam.)
Their lives will present them with other kinds of “tests” as well—tasks and projects that come with plenty of high expectations and pressure to perform. As the adults charged with helping to prepare our children for this future, let’s center our conversations on how we can empower them to face such challenges with confidence and ease, rather than dread and self-doubt. This fall, let’s not have the same old fights about testing. Let’s talk about how we can do testing differently, and better.

If you'd like to read more about affirmative testing—and if you'd like step-by-step instructions for implementing affirmative testing yourself—consider enrolling in the "Turn Testing Into Learning" e-course.  You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clicking here. Remember to enter the code NYT10OFF at checkout to receive your 10% discount.

And please send questions and comments to me at—I look forward to hearing from you!

All my best,


Copyright © 2014 Anne Paul, All rights reserved.
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