Why Assessment Matters: A Look at the Thinking Behind Testing

Just why exactly does assessment matter so much to your grey matter?

When it comes to the brain, there’s a general tendency to mythologise its capabilities. Ask most people how much they think they use on a daily basis and they will probably give you the widely cited – but just as widely debunked – figure of around ten per cent.

It’s an appealing fallacy that allows us to deflect attention away from our shortcomings and imply the existence of an untapped 90 per cent that comprises our true potential. If we could somehow harness the mysterious, uncharted regions of the brain, then surely we could all become great inventors, artists, musicians, or leaders.

If only it were that simple, but it isn’t. It rarely is when dealing with so complex an organism. Indeed, as neurologist Barry Gordon of John Hopkins School tells us: “It turns out that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time”.

Yet as Robynne Boyd also points out in the same article, “Ultimately, it’s not that we use ten per cent of our brains; merely that we only understand about ten per cent of how it functions”.

It's not that we only use 10% of our brains; it's that we only understand about 10% of how it works. Click To Tweet

And this is where the real intrigue lies – if we don’t fully understand how our brains operate, then how can we be sure that we are using the right methods to maximise what we have?

Why Assessment Matters

This is the perennial question for educators, and attempts to answer it have affected an evolution of the educational landscape.

No doubt this rapid change has been buoyed by the advent of learning technology over the last decade or so, which has seen teaching models such as the flipped classroom, self-directed learning, project-based learning (PBL) and collaborative learning rapidly grow in popularity.

But teaching with technology doesn’t necessarily equate to teaching with success. In fact many EdTech offerings promise benefits that are based on shaky or even disproven scientific research.

However, one area that has proven to be hugely effective in learning is assessment.

While the idea of assessment may be old, technology now allows educators take an approach to it that is excitingly new – one that is based on the evidence-supported effectiveness of retrieval practice. Indeed according to Bob Burgin, an entrepreneur and CEO of Knowledge Factor, retrieval practice (or “self-testing”) “is arguably the most effective way to cement learning into memory. Self-testing strengthens the ‘retrieval pathway’ to the information. Retrieved memories are remembered with vastly greater clarity than information without retrieval practice”.

Resisting a Test?

In order to allow assessment to have a meaningful impact on learning, the first thing that needs to be addressed is perception: nobody likes taking tests. In fact most people would prefer to avoid them if at all possible.

If we don’t fully understand how our brains work, how can we be sure that we're using the right methods to train it? Click To Tweet

This response is largely the result of negative connotations associated with various kinds of assessment. Whether it’s a driving test, a blood test, or a school test – each presents an intimidating dichotomy between progress and regress. Pass your test and onwards you go; fail and you must deal with a painful setback.

anxiety harms learning

Such thinking can understandably cause high levels of anxiety to set in. For the student facing an important exam, this may mean bad news if not handled correctly, since stress has been shown to impede our ability to learn.

Additionally, worrying about the consequences of failure also makes us fearful of making mistakes, which are actually a crucial part of the discovery and learning process. As the modernist great James Joyce once wrote: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Assessment versus Assessment

Changing this perception means making a clear distinction between two kinds of assessment. On the one hand you have summative assessment, which takes the familiar form of the end-of-semester or year-end examination. This form of assessment focuses on outcomes only (i.e. grade score) and is used to quantify the level of learning that’s been achieved.

On the other hand there is formative assessment, an altogether different proposition.

By treating tests as part of an overall learning strategy, formative assessment (which encompasses retrieval practice) helps students engage with information, organise it more effectively and receive regular feedback that helps them reflect on and analyse what they have learned. It is not about identifying deficiency; it is about identifying pathways that advance learners’ development.

Formative assessment isn't about finding flaws in learners; it's about finding ways to help learners advance. Click To Tweet

This key distinction between the two forms expresses a widespread misunderstanding about the application and potential of testing.

Used correctly, retrieval practice also helps improve learners’ retention and knowledge consolidation. According to Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University: “Our minds are sensitive to the likelihood that we’ll need knowledge at a future time … The process of retrieving a memory alters that memory in anticipation of demands we may encounter in the future.”

It has also been shown to be more effective than conventional methods of learning at promoting knowledge transfer (applying knowledge learned in one context to others).

A Closing Thought on the Thinking Apparatus

This article began by referring to the ten per cent brain myth and so we’ll round it off by considering a study that traces similar lines.

In January 2016 researchers at Salk Institute in the US made a startling discovery. Using advanced microscopy to examine the architecture of the hippocampus (the brain’s so-called “memory centre”) they found that the brain’s storage capacity may be as large as a petabyte – roughly the equivalent to all the information on the World Wide Web. It is also ten times greater than what it was previously believed to be.

Is it perhaps possible then, that by using more effective methods in learning we may improve the brain’s efficiency for absorbing information on a far greater scale than once imagined? Is it even possible that the ten per cent myth might just prove a reality after all?

Feature image courtesy of J. Orrico | Unsplash

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