Friday, September 12, 2014

Failing is Good. Really.

Have you read “Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing” from last Sunday's NY Times magazine section?  If so, I would be interested in knowing what you thought of it. If not, it’s definitely worth a look.  According to author Benedict Carey,  
Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.
That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.
The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar. … A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.
The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It’s a way of enriching and altering memory.
The theory emerging suggests that pretesting, at least when followed by prompt feedback on the issues covered, “primes the brain,” making it more apt to absorb new information, and the test “becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.”
What is your philosophy on testing?  Do you use pre-testing at all? Why, how, why  not? 


  1. Certainly testing may supplement or even complement testing. We need to note, however, that flunking can have adverse or negative effects, causing students to give up or even kill themselves. I do agree that "a test is not only a measurement tool" and it may be "a way of enriching and altering memory." I have yet to see conclusive evidence for the claim that "Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around."

    Safro Kwame

  2. Hi Kwame: I certainly agree that high stakes testing can have negative effects on students. What this article made me think about, though, was how I might reverse the order of what I do. In my writing classes, for instance, I often discuss common grammar errors that have turned up in student assignments (fragments or run-on sentences, for instance) and then we do some exercises to work through the issue and then I "test" their understanding with a quiz. Maybe it would work better for me to give them a multiple-choice test first, then to do the discussing and the lecturing. Or maybe I could require students to do practice tests online before coming to class. Would this "prime the pump" to get their brains more ready to accept and retain what we do in class? I don't know but it's a possibility that might be worth a try.