Here is the closing line of this fascinating New York Times article on testing, “…But the emerging study of pretesting flips that logic on its head. 'Teaching to the test’ becomes ‘learning to understand the pretest,’ whichever one the teacher chooses to devise. The test, that is, becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.”
Benedict Carey refers to research that supports a belief we at our knowledge transfer consulting firm have espoused for the last ten years or so, not in the academic classroom but in the transfer of knowledge on the job. The idea is to give your students or “apprentices” a clear picture of what is on their final test up front (in business we’d say that final test is the successful performance of their job). This helps apprentices focus and become productive faster. If you show them a varied and deep enough test on the front end, with a clear list of required tasks and skills, and then use that as a guide to what they should learn, they will, in fact, learn more of what is useful and do so faster than without this guidance. We call this clear picture our Skill Development Plan and its corresponding test questions are a “map to the scavenger hunt” of learning how to do one’s job. Without that map, it is much harder to win the game.
This article also reminds us that the word “testing” is still loaded, of course, and there are plenty of arguments about how it is a woefully incomplete measure of learning and blind to all measures of creative thinking—but that shouldn’t take away from the potential of a test to move the learning process along and help people to become productive on the job.
If you want to learn more about how we use our 20 knowledge transfer test questions as a pretest of sorts to ensure quick, measurable transfer of 90+% of an expert’s “secret sauce,” here and here are posts that explains how.