Test-taking isn’t true learning

Ashley Park Elementary staff wave to departing students on the last day of school in 2013.
Ashley Park Elementary staff wave to departing students on the last day of school in 2013.

Like many teachers, this week I finished all my grading, filed papers, tidied up my classroom, and said goodbye to another year of students. And like most of my colleagues, I’ve also been busy evaluating the progress my students made – or didn’t make – this year.

It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy over test scores and final assessments, but it’s also important to remember that there’s a distinction between performance and learning. Performance is easy to measure; learning is not. Performance reflects what a student does in a particular moment. Learning reflects how a student remembers and uses what he knows.

Consider every test you ever crammed for. No matter how well you performed on the test, your retention of the material later was a better indication of how much you actually learned.

Conversely, imagine a skilled ice skater whose Olympic trial is the day after she breaks her leg. Her performance in a cast would not be an authentic measure of her ability.

This distinction is one highlighted by the research of Robert Bjork of UCLA. Focusing on performance at the expense of learning can inhibit genuine learning, according to Bjork. In fact, students doing the hard work of learning – processing and integrating information – often see their performance fall.

In my classes, the high fliers who find learning easy usually stumble at first. In my American literature classes, the early material is challenging – lots of historical documents written in archaic rhetoric that the students have to decode in order to parse the deeper meaning. In my AP English classes, the challenge is a different sort – reading and interpreting new material without any scaffolding from me beforehand. Teaching my students that they are capable of making reasonable deductions and inferences and then turning those insights into coherent essays is the work of the entire year, but at the end of it, they are confident, independent thinkers.

The hurdles my students have to overcome in my classes are what Bjork calls “desirable difficulties.” Texts that are slightly beyond a student’s comprehension, tests that require free-response answers instead of blanks to fill in, pacing instruction so that it isn’t neatly organized, and interleaving related topics are techniques that may initially depress performance but ultimately enhance learning.

Few of my students start out performing well on my tests. I spend the first quarter reassuring them that the old adage “no pain, no gain” is true in academics as well as in sports – and encouraging them to double down and worry about what they are learning instead of their test scores. Most of them do, and in their end of the year evaluations, they almost always say that the class was very hard but also equally rewarding. Their pride of accomplishment shows.

“When I received bad grades at the beginning,” one student wrote, “I felt discouraged and out of place. However, now I feel as if I have grown so much. This class taught me how to push myself.”

In an interview in Forbes after his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants was published in 2013, Malcolm Gladwell pointed to the research of Bjork in his examination of successful entrepreneurs. A surprising number, Gladwell found, were dyslexic. Others had lost a parent early in their lives.

“There does seem to be a class of obstacles that for some people – for whatever reason – has an advantageous outcome,” Gladwell said. “For example, if you look at the class of dyslexics who end up as successful entrepreneurs, they obviously have certain things in common. They tend to be highly intelligent. I interviewed maybe a dozen of them. In almost every case, the successful dyslexic had one family member who always believed in them.

“Maybe one way of saying it is if your only obstacle is dyslexia, then it could be desirable. But for a child who grows up in a low-income neighborhood, who has an average IQ, who has a troubled family life, and has dyslexia, it is not going to be desirable. You have too many obstacles to deal with.”

Many of the students at my school have multiple obstacles to contend with – poverty and its attendant miseries chief among them. When we address the challenges of hunger, insecure housing, violence, and poor physical and mental health care, then our students’ performance and their learning soar. Resolve the overwhelming difficulties first – and then students will have the necessary perseverance to overcome the desirable ones their teachers plan for them.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Email: