Assessment is a very powerful tool for learning. For over a century studies have shown evidence of its ability to boost retention of material versus restudy. And, although the high-stakes variety of testing has given it a bad name, assessment is so important for effective and efficient learning whether studying in the classroom or at home.
I can think back to my years as a student and recognize that I wasted so many hours simply rereading and highlighting my notes from class. As a teacher, I see the value in assessment (sometimes also called retrieval practice or the testing effect).
I now recognize that learning is effortful. It isn’t really about how many hours you put in studying, but rather how you thought about and with the material while you were studying – attempting to retrieve information via informal quizzing or using flashcards or having a discussion. I see it. I get it.
The problem is trying to get my students to understand this. I want to equip them with the healthiest of study habits while in my class, but also for any classes they take in the future. And I’m willing to invest the time and effort during my course to have explicit conversations to convince them of this.
I spend a considerable amount of time attempting to undo some of their poor study habits and replace them with the more effective and efficient learning strategies like retrieval practice and spaced practice.
It seems my students generally have to overcome three mental hurdles when trying to understand the power of assessment in the learning process.
Three common hurdles
I want to highlight the three most common hurdles I see from my students when it comes to getting them to use assessment as a strategy for learning.
1. Getting students past “is this for a grade?”.
I feel pretty confident is saying that all teachers have heard this phrase a few times in class. Students expect grades for assessments. When they hear that word, it has certain connotations that aren’t necessarily the healthiest for learning. I talk with my students about how assessments don’t have to be for points and can be used to inform students of what they know and what they don’t know. There is a big difference between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. This distinction is lost on most students until it is clearly discussed and demonstrated in class.
2. Getting students to invest even though it isn’t directly for a grade.
Once students begin to realize it isn’t for a grade, some become apathetic to the idea of even completing the assessments. “If it isn’t for a grade, why am I doing it?” seems to be the most common question.
This loops us back to another conversation on how completing this quiz (even though it isn’t for a grade) can be incredibly useful for instructing their further studies and there’s even evidence that doing this retrieval practice strengthens their memories of the material and their ability to recall it later. So, while this quiz might not make its way into the gradebook, eventually there will be an assessment that is for a grade.
Completing this assessment for no points will (1) show them what they need to focus their future studies on and (2) possibly improve memories of the material they did know. Students don’t really experience these positive effects when simply rereading from their notes/textbook…or by doing nothing at all.
3. Getting students to use assessment as a study/practice technique.
After students begin to see the advantageous results of assessment as part of the learning process, I have conversations with my classes about the wide applicability of these strategies. It may seem obvious to teachers that retrieval practice can be applied across all disciplines and grade levels, but it sometimes isn’t obvious to students.
I have certainly had students tell me they quiz and assess in my class, but they still use poor study habits in their other classes. Because their other teachers may not have had these conversations with them, students sometimes assume it shouldn’t be done. Again, I explicitly tell them these strategies should be used in my class, in your science class, next year in school, when you’re in college/university, et cetera. These strategies should become your habits for studying whenever you want/need to learn.
If I can get students over these three hurdles, they’re usually off to acquiring and honing their study habits for more success. It takes time to get them over these hurdles, but it is an investment in their education that may last a lifetime.
What hurdles do you see in your students that may exacerbate poor study habits?
Blake Harvard is a 15-year teaching verteran and currently the AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama, where he is also head coach for freshman football. He received his B. S. and M. Ed. degrees from the University of Montevallo. Blake also serves as the AP Psychology specialist for A+ College Ready. Visit his blog The Effortful Educator for many other articles about effective practice and find him on Twitter @effortfuleduktr.
More from Blake Harvard
► 2 Evidence-Based Learning Strategies – Blake’s 2018 article for Edutopia explained why spaced and retrieval practice help students retain content and give them a sense of what they know—and what they don’t.
► A Review of Optimizing Learning in College: Tips from Cognitive Psychology – Blake’s summarization at his blog of a 2016 article he shares with his juniors and seniors earned accolades on Twitter.
Building Retrieval Practice into Daily Instructional Planning – A recent post at Blake’s personal blog with a K-12 perspective. (October 2020)
► Retrieval Practice – Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q&A (BAM Radio – January 31, 2021)