Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:
Do practice tests impact student learning?
Over a decade’s worth of our own data indicates that they do. For our students who started with a diagnostic score below 20 on the ACT, the inclusion of four additional practice test opportunities as part of their instructional program led to nearly twice as much growth. For all our students, purposefully incorporating practice test opportunities leads to higher growth.
Why does practice testing matter?
It’s not because rote repetition (drill and kill) works; in fact, testing alone or in excess is ineffective. It’s the learning & teaching opportunity the testing presents that matters.
The Learning Opportunity
Research suggests that the very experience of test taking can be a meaningful learning activity because it engages students in practicing retrieval of core curriculum and problem-solving. This practice should be incorporated into learning in many ways: through intentional questioning and feedback during an instructional session, completing homework to reinforce, as well as practice testing. However, the real value for students from practice testing is in the experience of learning from their errors. For over 20 years, I’ve encouraged my students to understand the following: there is no true learning without the analysis of error. Developing error tolerance helps students engage in active, exploratory, problem-solving. Especially if our goal is optimal performance in high-stakes testing, we need to encourage students to allow themselves to make and correct errors while taking low-stakes practice tests. As parents and educators, we often focus on guiding our students to avoid errors at all costs, while error analysis, in fact, engenders learning. Fail forward; F.A.I.L. (First Attempt in Learning); mistakes are opportunities to learn —it’s important to encourage students to absorb mistake-making into their process of learning.
The Teaching Opportunity
Above all, knowledge of student errors helps the teacher improve instruction. Research on formative assessment (Black & Wiliam 1998; Dunn & Mulvenon 2009) shows that assessments used by teachers to focus instruction can drive learning. Analysis of student performance on assessments can indicate areas of difficulty where instruction should be focused and provide the teacher evidence of student thinking and misconceptions. What’s critical then is the feedback the teacher provides that drives student learning, which research has shown to be among the top influences on student achievement. Clear, timely feedback leads students to self-reflect and modify their problem-solving strategies while guiding them towards new learning and growth.
Practice testing can play a critical role in this important cycle of feedback, instruction, and learning. We encourage our students to find time for practice testing. While it requires that commitment of time, the learning and growth practice test-taking engenders is compelling.
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO