"But you didn't tell us you were giving a test today!"
How to stop the excuses and get the focus on learning.

"You said the test would just be on the Civil War. You didn't say anything about Abraham Lincoln," complains a perplexed student. "I study, I think I know the stuff. But when I get to the tests it's like all of my ideas fly out of my head and float around the room and go into some other kid's head," wails another.

When it comes to tests, we've heard it all. And then some! There are many reasons, of course, some children do well on examinations and others struggle — how well students know the material, how prepared they are, what their natural abilities are, the support they receive at home, and more. While not all of these factors are under your control, you can drastically change how students respond to examinations and increase their enthusiasm for learning by giving tests a new role. The key: to think of tests as teaching tools, not just as a means to evaluate learning after it has occurred. Knowing exactly what you expect students to learn — that is, what you will eventually test for — before you start teaching will help you develop focused, goal-directed lessons and learning and keep you on track along the way.

Stay the Course

Think of teaching as taking a trip, with testing analogous to reaching your final destination. The real value of the trip, of course, is the traveling — the learning. But to get on the road, and stay on course, you need to know where you're going — what you want your students to learn. You already do this when creating individual lesson plans. But for units, the test offers you additional opportunities to focus your teaching and keep your students on track.

Let's say you're planning a unit on volcanoes. It's easy to get excited, jump in, and quickly start outlining great activities that will touch on numerous curricular areas. As with an open-ended trip, the options are so vast that it's easy to lose direction. If you love geology, you might focus on teaching about the earth's structure and what causes the volcanoes to erupt. On the other hand, you might concentrate on the social ramifications of volcanic activity. But developing your unit test up front in conjunction with your lesson plans will help you narrow your focus. It will also act as a sounding board for picking the best activities to teach what you want your students to learn — and what you want to test on.

Foster a Positive Attitude

Clearly defining the role of testing in your class and your grading policies can ease the anxiety or negative feelings that students may have about tests. And thinking of your students as partners in testing will help foster a positive attitude about examinations. Let your students know:

  • Tests help them focus their learning. Tell them: "If you know what you will be tested on, you will know what's important to learn, and it will help you organize your study time."
  • Tests give them an opportunity to convey what they know. Tell them: "After all the time you spend in class and doing homework, you should have a chance to show your stuff!"
  • Tests show you who needs more help in certain areas. Tell them: "Tests help me teach you better by showing where you need the most assistance and giving me ideas on how to help."

Create a Test-Date Calendar

Establish a test-date calendar and give students their own individual copies on which they write in the dates and lessons or units on which they will be tested. Then hang a large, blank calendar on a classroom wall and fill in test dates with students to reinforce the dates and provide them with a visual reminder about upcoming examinations.

It is equally important to inform parents about your testing vision. Many parents are grade conscious because they are concerned that test scores reflect intelligence and will affect their children's educational opportunities. They may unwittingly put pressure on their children by asking such questions as "Why did you only get a B+?" or repeatedly asking when upcoming tests are.

Give parents a copy of the test-date calendar, and share your grading policies and your outlook on testing. Armed with clearly outlined expectations from you, parents will be better able to help their children study for tests.

Pretest Strategies

Before giving a test, employ these simple strategies to teach students study skills and improve their performance:

  • Announce the test, even though you have a test-date calendar. Students need ample time to study, regardless of how limited or comprehensive the content.
  • Define the scope of the test. One of the chief reasons students say they don't do well on a test is that they didn't know what was going to be on it. Tell them the exact format of the test and carefully outline the topics that will be covered.
  • Help students plan study time. Work out a nightly study plan with youngsters, providing it in writing or having them write it in their assignment books. Besides helping youngsters do well on the test, this promotes the development of study skills and gets parents involved.

Ask your students to identify what they believe will be hard for them to learn and come up with how they will work to learn it. This will make them active participants in their education and facilitate planning your last lessons before the test.

After the Test

The testing process is not over when grading is finished. You can use the results of the test to make your students more active learners and to gain insight into your teaching.

  • Review the examination. After collecting the tests, go over the answers with students so that they can see exactly what you expected from them. Model correct written answers. Then return their tests and have each student correct his or her own exam in class or at home to reinforce what they have learned and teach them a powerful study skill.
  • Have students analyze their performance. Students need truly to understand how they did on a test, and why. Did they know the material? Did they prepare for the test effectively? How well did they perform during the test? (In other words, they need to know that they are responsible for their performance and the grade that they received.) After each examination, have each student fill out a test-analysis questionnaire that asks these questions and any others that you think are pertinent. Ask them whether there is anything they would do differently if they had to study for and take the test again. This is a powerful tool for helping students improve their test-taking abilities.

Analyze Your Teaching

Test results can give excellent feedback on how successfully you've taught the material as well as provide insight into ways to adjust your teaching, both for your entire class and for individual students. Although this type of analysis is not a science, determining whether there is an overall pattern of success or failure can help you identify teaching strengths and weaknesses as well as guide you toward better planning in future.

In this way, testing will help you create a full-circle approach to teaching. From lesson planning to analyzing test results, you will stay focused on what you are teaching, how well your students are learning, and how to make them more proficient — and more enthusiastic — learners.

Margaret Nuzum, Ed.D., is the director of Empire Educational Services, Inc., a tutoring center located in Brooklyn, New York. She wrote the feature "Creating Homework Success," which appeared in the October 1998 issue of Instructor.