How tests teach and motivate

Lindsay comes to maths.  She sits in the front corner of the room.  The teacher speaks.  She stares out the window.  The teacher passes her a sheet of work to complete.  She doodles mindlessly on its top-right corner.  The bell goes.  Lindsay leaves maths.

Sumayar comes to maths.  She sits near the centre of the room.  The teacher speaks.  She listens attentively.  The teacher passes her a sheet of work to complete.  She gets to work immediately.  The bell goes.  Sumayar leaves maths.

Both these girls have two things in common: they do not distress, disrupt or disturb, and, they have no sense of long-term progress.  Sumayar is motivated by her immediate in-class success.  Lindsay needs to work much harder to ‘get it.’  But Lindsay doesn’t have to get it; it doesn’t matter.  Lindsay turns up, causes no bother, leaves, and has no sense of just how far behind she’s slipping; she won’t, until that slip becomes a plummet from a cliff into the sea of GCSE; and it’s too late, and it’s too scary, and she was never any good at maths anyway.

Cliff face

Facing the cliff face

I’ve seen the power of a system of ‘pre’ and ‘post’ unit tests to lend structure, vision and purpose to work in class.  I’ve seen the introduction of such tests precede a sudden, sharp shift in the attitude and motivation of pupils.  I’ve seen pupils look forward to knowing how much they can do now, that they couldn’t before.

Even in myself, I’ve felt the effect of systems like this on my attitude to lessons and the pupils in them, helping to a fuel an ethos of ‘no excuses’ and ‘no-one left behind.’

Tests of this kind need to adhere to a few simple rules

  • They must be low-stakes

o   Allow re-sits if you can manage it logistically (you might be surprised how many want to stay behind after school to do a test!)

o   Consider making it open-book – I now allow notes in post-tests, but it doesn’t mean pupils all score 100%.  Allowing notes can still test for the application of knowledge, though it doesn’t necessarily test for recall

o   Develop a culture of expectation that people will score little or nothing on the pre-test.  It serves the purpose of providing a baseline so pupils can clearly see their own progress, as well as giving them some quiet thinking time to look ahead to what they’re soon to learn – it’s not a test to ‘do well in’

  • They should probably be knowledge-based

o   This takes care of itself in mathematics and languages

o   Science teachers will probably see the benefits of this

o   Other subjects might not think to undertake pre-tests because of the intense skills-led nature of their levelled assessment system – the ‘pre-test’ is just whatever they achieved in their last levelled written assignment; but perhaps some innovative humanities or English teachers could speak to the value of a knowledge-led assessment in the comments below?

  • Finally, they probably shouldn’t be called ‘tests’ in front of the kids.  ‘Assessments’ is better, ‘quizzes’ perhaps better still

Testing has an additional benefit: it enhances memory.

The notion of formative assessment led to the idea that tests could serve the learning process by helping teachers understand what pupils know, and therefore plan future lessons accordingly, or adapt in the moment.  What is often still missing, however, is the fact that tests themselves produce learning.  Sitting a test is, almost paradoxically, as much an effective way to learn something as listening to a teacher, reading from a book, or discussing with peers.  Importantly, sometimes it’s actually a more effective method.  Even with the caveat that of course the testing must follow some other form of initial teaching, this is still deeply counter-intuitive, and so little wonder it hasn’t made its way into mainstream understanding yet.

In short, tests teach and motivate.




Written for the June #blogsync:


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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3 Responses to How tests teach and motivate

  1. heatherfblog says:

    My experience too. I’d add that in history, identifying what the core you really want everyone to know, testing that but telling the the kids in advance exactly what they need to revise is very powerful. I am then able to set a really high pass mark because I know every child is capable of achieving it. I always do retests, generally for those that didn’t do the learning in the first place.

  2. rgslearning says:

    Reblogged this on RGS Learning and commented:
    In the aftermath of End of Year tests, it is perhaps worth reflecting on why and how we test our students. Here is a blog post to spark the discussion…

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