A+ Advice for Parents

'Affirmative Testing' a New Way to Look at Learning Process

Q: My daughter is so caught up in the "tests are bad" movement that she and her peers are stressed with each exam. I think tests are essential, and I want to change her attitude. Got any ammo to back me up?

A: Yes, and it comes from one of education's most innovative thinkers, Annie Murphy Paul (anniemurphypaul.com). She's the author of The Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter that looks at research on learning.

Murphy Paul is a proponent of "affirmative testing," a process teachers use "to ensure that testing supports learning and growth." It asks students to think in new ways about how they approach tests and to reflect on their performance afterward.

"Conventional testing drags down everyone's spirits," says Murphy Paul. "With affirmative testing, we can help students face tests with confidence and ease, rather than dread and self-doubt. It offers a way to bring a love of learning back into students' lives."

Most students see exams as the end of learning. But "affirmative testing shows students that learning is a cycle that goes from reflect to compare to adjust," says Murphy Paul. "The cycle brings improvement and clarified understanding."

How does it work? In some classrooms, teachers create "exam wrappers," a simple and effective written exercise that "prompts students to reflect on how they prepared for the test, how well their strategies worked out, and what they might do differently next time," says Murphy Paul.

Parents can use the same prompts as discussion starters to help students think about their grades and reflect on how they might improve.

Here's how the conversation might play out. Before your daughter gets her exam score, discuss:

-- Can you predict your score?

-- On a scale of 1 to 10, how much effort did you put into preparing for this exam?

-- How long did you study for it, and what specific strategies did you use?

-- What was easiest for you on the exam? Why?

-- What was most difficult? Why?

After your daughter gets her exam back, discuss:

-- How do you feel about your performance? Was your prediction correct?

-- Did you experience the "illusion of knowing"? In other words, students may "feel confident that they performed well on an academic task, only to find out that there was a gap in their understanding," says Murphy Paul.

-- What was the source of each test question? Did it come from the reading or the teacher's presentation?

-- Did you get more right answers from your reading or from listening to the teacher?

-- On your next exam, would you change any of the strategies you used, or the amount of time you spent studying?

-- What could you ask your teacher to do to help you prepare for the next exam?

While it may take time to get the hang of this discussion, it's worth the effort.

"We need to help students develop the habit of reviewing their performance and notice moments when it's important to reflect on their learning," says Murphy Paul. "Getting back a graded test is one such moment, but there are many others that occur throughout the day: when a student is embarking on a new unit, or feels confused or frustrated, or feels that they know the material cold, but might actually be experiencing overconfidence."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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