“Test” doesn’t have to be a dirty word

teenager scared of exams

Few words inspire such fear in the hearts of students as “test” or “exam”. We’re all familiar with that sinking feeling when your teacher or professor announces a pop quiz or end of term exam. Tests are the stuff nightmares are made of. Many people, years after graduating, are still haunted by that recurring exam anxiety dream where they are late for an exam they forgot to revise for. But why exactly is testing perceived as such a negative thing? Working in the educational sector, I see people go to extreme lengths to avoid mentioning the big bad “T”  word. Or indeed the “E” word. We have so many euphemisms for tests – assessment, quiz, activity – and one of my all time personal favorites: “question-based reinforcement” –  yet realistically they are all just different ways of saying pretty much exactly the same thing. Not convinced? Let’s look at some definitions from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary:


“Something (as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group.”


“An exercise designed to examine progress or test qualification or knowledge.”


“The the act of making a judgment about something.”


“A short spoken or written test that is often taken without preparation.”


A large part of the negative connotations around testing is the fact that many people associate testing with a high-stakes, summative exam, with potentially limited (or no) retakes and a life-altering outcome. Results from this type of testing can determine what grade you are put into, which college you get into, whether you progress to the next level, whether you get a certain job, etc. These are tests where the specific learning cycle is finished, and the learner is not given another chance to exhibit growth and progress. These tests are termed “autopsy tests” amongst educational experts, and with good reason.

It’s quite similar to the negative connotations of sales in the business world –  like “test” or “exam”,  “sales” is still perceived as a bit of a dirty word. If you say you are in sales, images of sleazy, second-hand car salesmen are conjured up. And again, nobody owns up to being in sales and, just like in the education world, the euphemisms appear… “business development”, “consultant”, “strategic partnerships”. Ok, so maybe slightly broader  than sales, but ultimately the end goal of these business functions is to increase the monetary yield of the company by selling products, services, or opportunities. Sales is the lifeblood of any business – there isn’t any more potent or powerful way to develop your business than by selling.

Many people feel that tests are a pass-fail event and a final determination of your academic success, or even your self-worth. Some people also dislike testing because they are scared of failure and are afraid of having their weaknesses exposed. I’m certainly not disputing that tests give some indication of an individual’s prowess in a specific field, but that’s not all they do. Not by a long shot. Testing should be an integral part of any learning process, and we need to change the mindset around testing. The negative connotations only persist because we allow them to.

Testing should be seen as a positive learning aid as it allows learners to take control of their own learning journey. Tests are not just about finding out what learners don’t know but also about finding out what they do know! Only through regular testing can we identify the progress that a student has made. Students can see how far they have come in their latest phase of learning and have a measurable way of seeing how all their hard work and effort has paid off.

bridging gap image


Tests also help us identify gaps, and this should not be seen as failure, but rather as an opportunity to figure out how to bridge those gaps. It’s only when you manage to identify the gaps in your knowledge that you can try and close these gaps. To borrow from Sal Khan of Khan Academy, “we should be teaching for mastery, not for test scores”.

Students are not going to embrace testing overnight, but we should encourage them to take agency over their own learning, to be willing partners in the process of understanding what they have and haven’t mastered, and to use tests as a way of measuring their improvement, so that they can learn and progress based on the results.

Interested in learning more about testing as a learning tool? Check out our blog post: Formative Assessment in the Digital World.

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