Friday, February 4, 2011

Testing, testing...

This New York Times article can't be news to anyone by now, and I look forward to reading the details of the original study as soon as Science makes it online accessible to my university library. Of course this is nothing new. Francis Bacon, in the 1620s, said what dozens of research studies in the 1900s have confirmed:

"If you read a piece of text through 20 times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it 10 times, while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails."

So I've happily been putting testing to more use with my students. Mostly, I'm using the opening and closing activities from Every Minute Counts, and the good news is that it's been very easy to do this in every class (both math and psych).

This is what it looks like right now:

Start of class: "put away notes and books and try your best to solve the problem on the board". Typically I'll have a basic problem that tests recall of previous lesson or homework. Sometimes I'll include another problem which opens up to whatever material we're doing the current lesson. As an example, last time with my Seniors, I started with the question "P(getting 2 sixes by tossing two dice once) = ?" and on the other half of the board had the question "P(getting two pink socks out of a drawer with 3 pink, 2 orange and 2 red) = ?" This led us straight into the distinction between dependent and independent events, and thus served two aims at once.

End of class: "list the main ideas from this lesson". After a few minutes they are allowed to compare their list with a classmate, and a minute or so later check their notes.

This has been incredibly easy. The main difficulty has been that students seem unused to, or unwilling, to let go of notes and book and classmate-support. I've spent a significant amount of minutes convincing them that this is a good idea, even if it feels frustrating to not remember everything you think you should.  I'm usually strong at starting, weak at following up - so the fact that this is working and growing is a sign to me that this is worth pursuing and I hope that students will learn to test themselves while doing homework or revising as well.


  1. I'm really glad that the book is serving you well. I have a very similar start of class (though I usually have a half page handout for the students) but I love the metacognitive approach to the end of class.

    I am curious though about what you expect students to write about in the wrap-up. Is it every little procedural thing that has been covered or is it one or two essential questions/big ideas?

  2. In the wrap up, to make it efficient, I give some but not much guidance and say "main points" to clarify that I don't want them to go into details. It actually serves another purpose as well, because when they compare with each other they may need to discuss what is a main point and what is just a subsidiary point. Usually I want them to focus on conceptual understanding rather than procedure at this point.