Monthly Archives: January 2011

Really: Test to learn?

Friday's Times reports on a study from Science, their headline, "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test."   The study, originally published in Science,, compares testing to concept mapping and other study methods.  Researchers found that students who took a test, did better at retrieving information than students who created visual maps of what they learned.  How did the study measure what students remembered?  By having students complete short answer tests and later, create concept maps from memory.  Undoubtedly, tests can help us remember material.  A more important question is, will tests help apply knowledge in context and to real-world experiences?  I fear that these results will be grist for those that are vested in using test scores as proof of student achievement.  I appreciate the challenge of measuring student progress.  Somehow, you need to assess student performance.  To me, the test is often just a measure of how students did on that test and not a demonstration of mastery or how that knowledge could be applied.  

Soon, Watson, an IBM Supercomputer, will face off against the best human Jeopardy contestants.  You can bet that these contestants practice by playing the game, by testing their knowledge over and over as does Watson.  They will undoubtedly have mastered a range of content to be successful in their quest.  There's speculation about who will win.  I hate making predictions, but my hunch is that Watson will give the humans a run for the money, and like the Chess super-computer, Deep Blue, eventually win. To me, a victory like this is not a triumph of machine over man–but a celebration of our humanity.  Those engineers at IBM programmed Watson to learn and compete. That kind of accomplishment is a real demonstration of mastery.  The tests, like Jeopardy, are games.  They can be interesting, and do show some mastery of a subject, but the real measure of success is what can be done with what we learn.  So I say, let's have students writing computer programs, or explanations of experiments as alternatives to tests.