Pedagogy: Rejecting teaching to the test

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Photo: MA Education

As tempting as it can be to teach to the test, Karen Sullivan urges educators to reject this approach. She offers some alternative ideas based on research evidence

The inevitable countdown to final exams has begun and it is all-too-tempting to adjust teaching methods and use teaching time to ensure that students are prepared to master their examinations, even if it does mean that creative learning is compromised.

While there is research to suggest that students will achieve higher grades in some subjects with the “teach to the test” approach, it is a worrying trend that can extinguish a love of learning, lead to poor motivation, and result in superficial learning that prohibits advanced thinking and communication skills.

One study by the Institute of Education in 2010 found that children perform best in exams when teachers are not overly concerned about their test results. Pupils showed greater motivation, were better behaved, and more likely to be independent and strategic thinkers.

The author of the study, Chris Watkins, said that the word “learning” was rarely heard in classrooms, and teachers have resorted to narrowing the curriculum and drilling pupils for tests, making students less motivated.

He says that children who develop a “performance orientation” rather than a “learning orientation” tend to show greater helplessness, use less strategic thinking and be more focused on grade feedback. They are more likely to persevere with strategies that are not working.

Children’s attitudes and behaviour improve – along with their results – when teachers and schools are more concerned about helping them learn than pushing them to gain particular exam scores, Mr Watkins found.

An interesting experiment was undertaken in Chicago in the late 1990s, after the city instituted a number of policies requiring students and schools to meet performance standards on nationally standardised assessments.

Three widely respected researchers decided to find out what happened to students’ scores on these tests when teachers assigned work that demanded complex thinking and elaborated communication. They conducted a three-year study analysing classroom assignments and students’ gains on standardised tests across 400 Chicago classrooms.

The assignments were scored based on a rubric that evaluated the extent to which the assignments called for “authentic intellectual work” (applying basic skills and knowledge to solve new problems, expressing ideas and solutions using elaborated communication, and producing work related to the real world beyond the classroom).

More information on this study, along with a compelling insight into why encouraging children to use their imaginations, logic and basic learning is far more effective in both the short and long-term, can be found below. However, it is worth noting that in classrooms where teachers employed more authentic intellectual instruction, students’ logged test score that were 20 per cent higher than the national average, even when taking into consideration race, gender and poverty levels.

So what can teachers do to avoid falling into the “teach to the test” trap – to harness and encourage students’ intellectual powers, communication skills and innate ability to learn in such a way that their learning and ability will be reflected in their results?

The first and most important thing is to ditch the drills. Rote-learning may be effective in the short term, but it does nothing to enhance comprehension and long-term learning, and it is all-too-often responsible for boredom and disaffection. Instead, use the curriculum creatively, offering project work and effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning.

According to Wiliam (2006), students should be given feedback that moves them forward and they should be activated as owners of their own learning. What does this mean? Students should not be told what to do. To engage in the process of solving problems, they should be given a rich intellectual environment, in which participation is not just encouraged but mandatory, and the tools and conditions to seek extra help when necessary – in other words, self-assess constantly to find areas of weakness and then ways to support them.

Wiliam talks about a classroom where students are given a disc that is green on one side and red on the other. As a topic is taught, students can flip the disk to red if they don’t understand what’s going on. A student who is still on green then goes to the front of the classroom to answer the struggling student’s questions.

Not only is this a great way to promote engagement and self-assessment, but it also allows students to become “instructional resources” for one another, a proven way to encourage learning in both participants. It also creates participation – particularly useful for students who tend to shy away from classroom interaction.

There are dozens more ways to put into practice stimulating teaching methods that will play the dual role of inspiring and supporting higher learning, and it is well worth taking a look at Wiliam’s work in this area.

In terms of assessment, Black & Wiliam (1998) found that regular classroom testing and the use of results to adjust teaching and learning rather than competitive grading are effective, where as those that encourage rote and superficial learning are not.
Careful attention to students’ motivation and help in building their self-belief are also important, while competitive teaching and over-emphasis of marks and grades instead of advice are not. Regular feedback should be geared to learning rather than results, and that is, ultimately, the key. Now is a great time to begin to make changes in your classroom. I’ll be interested to hear what strategies work for you, and how both grades and interest levels respond as a result.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

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