Type to search

Tests as Teaching Devices

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Tests as Teaching Devices

Print This Article
Consider the following two ways to introduce an online lesson:1. In this module we will learn how gender differences are expressed in the traits of birds.2. Here are two photos of a robin, one male and one female. Tell me which you think is male, and why.

To continue reading, you must be a Teaching Professor Subscriber. Please log in or sign up for full access.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Consider the following two ways to introduce an online lesson:

  1. In this module we will learn how gender differences are expressed in the traits of birds.
  2. Here are two photos of a robin, one male and one female. Tell me which you think is male, and why.

The first method puts the student into the passive, “getting lectured to” state of mind, while the second method forces the student to formulate a hypothesis about the subject. The student might guess that the male is the larger one because human males are generally larger than human females, and perhaps the same applies to other animals. The student might instead guess that the one with the darker coloring is female because she would be better camouflaged when nesting. 

The student in the second case is applying their prior knowledge to the material. This is significant because we learn on the periphery of what we already know by connecting new information to prior knowledge. By formulating a hypothesis, the eventual answer gets connected to prior knowledge when the hypothesis is either confirmed or disconfirmed, thus building the student's overall knowledge base.   

Opening with a question also piques the student's interest in the material. The student is now invested in the answer and will pay more attention to the material to see whether his or her guess was correct. This again improves retention. 

A team of professors and instructional designers at the Cornell University Ornithology Lab used this opening for a biology class. Called “All About Fancy Males,” the test presented students with a sequence of photos of male and female members of a bird species.  Students were asked to pick out the male in each of the photos, and after submitting their guess learned whether it was right or wrong, and why. You can find it at: http://biology.allaboutbirds.org/features/fancymales/fancy-males. 

Students started seeing general patterns in the correct answer over the course of the module, such as that the male was usually the one with the more elaborate coloring because that coloring is used to attract females. In that way they are learning fundamental biology principles through the test itself. The explanations would often include auxiliary facts, such as that the brighter coloring makes the male more visible to predators, thus increasing the importance of male health for survival. Some cases went against the general patterns, providing an opportunity to teach why evolution produces counter-examples. In one case the “fancy” trait was a behavior, such as a dance, which was demonstrated by a video.

Faculty generally think of tests solely as a means to assess learning after the fact.  But tests can be used as learning devices themselves. They are especially powerful when used to provide immediate feedback. James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling, professors at the University of Texas at Austin, experimented with adding daily online quizzes to their psychology class. Instead of having to wait until the end of the test to learn how they did, students were immediately told whether their answer was correct upon submitting it. 

The results were striking. The students given the quizzes scored half a grade higher in the class than a group not given the tests. Even more interesting was that the quizzes produced a 50 percent reduction in the achievement gap among students of different socio-economic groups.

The reason for these results was most likely that frequent tests, along with immediate feedback, lead students to reflect on their learning, which has been shown to be a key to learning. Reflecting upon our learning improves not only our understanding of the immediate concepts, but our learning skills as well. This process is critical to self-regulating our learning. Unfortunately, we do little to teach students how to self-regulate their learning.  Tests with immediate feedback can help serve this need.

Another method of turning tests into teaching devices is to add a “wrapper” around them (Paul, 2015). The wrapper is a series of questions that students answer after the test about issues that might have influenced their performance.  For instance, a test wrapper can ask students to list the amount of time they spent on different test-preparation activities, such as rereading class notes or working on sample problems. Students who do poorly on a test might see how different study strategies influence their performance, and thus adjust their methods accordingly. 

The test wrappers can include questions about whether the student studies with music on, where the student studies, and the amount of time the student spends studying. This can lead students to think about how these other factors influence their performance.  

Test wrappers can ask the student to reflect on why he or she missed certain answers on the test. The student provides an estimate as to the degree to which their problem is due to different factors, such as not understanding a concept, not being careful, and not being able to formulate an approach to a problem. This clues the teacher to the student's problems, providing a starting point for addressing them.  By looking at class-wide patterns, the teacher can also identify common problems that require adjusting the course material.

Finally, the test wrapper can ask the student what he or she will do differently to better prepare for the next test. Students rarely reflect on how they will prepare for a test in the future.  Asking a student to think about it and write down the answer can make a significant difference in their performance in current and future courses.

Learning management systems make it easy to add low-stakes tests to online courses.  Consider how you might use them as learning devices before, during, and after students encounter the course content.  


Paul, A. (2015). A New Vision for Testing, Scientific American, v. 313, n. 11, 54-61.