Why waste good class time giving students tests?

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Teacher student contact time has the biggest impact on student learning, providing the teacher uses that time valuably to support their students. One of the key ideas behind ‘flipping’ the classroom is to give students work outside class that can be completed simply and easily, without significant demand, so that the face to face class time can be utilised more effectively in students discussing the work and the teacher spending time with students facilitating and supporting their learning.

It dismays me when I see teachers still giving several timed tests to students during a school year. The loss of teacher-student contact time can amount to as much as 10-20 hours in some instances. When asked as to the purpose of the test the response from the teacher is often linked to “checking for understanding,” “major assessment task,” or “practicing for the final exam.”

Oftentimes, when I pass by a class that is doing a test, the teacher can be seen on their computer answering emails, marking or catching up with some other ‘work’. I perceive this to be a waste of quality time whereby the teacher could be engaging with their students in more meaningful learning, supporting them, answering their questions, furthering their understanding and inspiring them in their thirst for learning.

I would love for teachers to re-think the test or practice paper. I propose that teachers, more often than not, give students a test to complete at home under timed conditions and return their responses in the next lesson either for immediate discussion or for marking and discussion later. While I do not want to open the debate about whether we should set homework, the completion of practice tests in the home environment is quite simple for most students to do. Students can make a valid attempt at the test, as they already have learned much of the information and, secondly, there is a pre-defined time limit to how long the task should last, meaning that students do not spend excessive amounts of time beyond that required, unlike many other homework tasks.

This proposal, when raised with some of my colleagues, has more often than not been met with raised eyebrows. Some claim the following reasons / issues are for not giving it a go:

  • The students might cheat
  • They may use a textbook for the answers
  • They may get help from a family member or friend
  • They may not stick to the time limit.
  • It is better if I supervise them

None of the above reasons, to me, are valid excuses for not giving this a try. As the teacher, we know our students. We know what they are capable of. We can tell if there is academic dishonesty. Also, what does it say about us? Can we not trust our students? We should be educating them to do the right thing and be principled in their actions.

What is being proposed here is moving some class tests or practice papers to be completed at home; not all of them. Indeed, students do need the experience of completing a timed test at school with their class mates, so that the final exam experience can be simulated and they get a least some comfort with what this will feel like.

Tests and practice papers should not, however, be misused so that our most important asset to supporting student learning, the teacher, does not engage with students on several occasions across a year because it is assumed that timed tests and practice papers must be conducted in the classroom and under their supervision. Indeed, our students may value our trust and confidence in them to complete such tasks away from the classroom.

photo credit: IMG_4899 via photopin (license)

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