What’s the Point of Testing?

For me, everything that happens in the course of teaching should contribute to improving the students’ knowledge, and testing is no exception. If the only thing that a test (an exam, a quiz, etc.) achieves is to provide a number or a letter, it means we have all wasted our time administering and taking the test in question.

People often invest these numbers with a huge meaning and start “teaching to the test” when what they should really be doing is the opposite: testing to teach.

To give an example, I devise the oral exams in my language courses in a way that allows the students to achieve a significant breakthrough and improve the way they speak dramatically in the course of the exam. They think I’m testing them when, in reality, I’m pushing them to a new level of language competency.

This is why I am so profoundly opposed to multiple-choice tests and consider them a tool of a lazy, irresponsible teacher. All such tests do is suggest to the students that there is one correct answer that a figure of authority will provide for them, and all they have to do it is memorize it and circle the “correct” answer. For the most part, the knowledge students can glean from such tests is erroneous, since for every “correct” answer, there are several “incorrect” ones.

I think that the best thing we can do as pedagogues is stop obsessing over meaningless grades and start concentrating on the actual knowledge we are imparting to the students. Testing is important because it allows students to track their progress and it also motivates them. The far more crucial role of testing, however, is to serve as an inventive way of teaching students at the moment when they are not aware of being taught.

I have taken more methodology of teaching courses than I can tell you about, and we learned to create teaching tests in those courses. In such courses, we, the future language teachers, were taught, for example, the percentage of completely new words and idiomatic expressions that each test should include in order to be effective. According to the rules of the foreign language teaching methodology, I would be remiss as an educator if I failed to include any new words and expressions into the final exam.

Of course, many college profs never get an opportunity to acquaint themselves with this branch of knowledge. As a result, whenever I go to the copy center in our building (which caters exclusively to the disciplines in the Humanities, mind you), I see a multiple choice quiz left there to be copied by one of my colleagues. There are even people who are ignorant enough to assign multiple-choice tests for foreign language courses.

I spent the entire day yesterday grading compositions in my Advanced language course. I underlined every word or expression in the text that didn’t sound right and wrote what kind of a mistake it was (grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc.) on top. I will return the compositions to students on Tuesday. They will rewrite them and hand them back to me. After that, I will grade them again. It would have been so much easier to hand out some silly fill-in-the-blanks activity instead and spend 20 minutes instead of 5 hours grading it. But the students wouldn’t learn nearly as much from it.


15 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Testing?”

  1. Clarissa:

    You hit the nail precisely on the head in your concluding paragraph. Educators use multiple choice examinations primarily to minimize their own time on grading. As you so rightly say, their prime aim is to obtain low-cost grades, not to use examinations as an instructional device.

    I have never used a multiple choice examination exactly for the reasons that you outline.


    1. What I just discovered after delicate negotiations with an instructor is that it is also that they are not confident enough to make grades if they don’t have a single, clear, “right,” quantifiable answer. I’ve got a PhD and a lot of experience so I’m confident to defend the grades I make, defines standards, etc., etc., but these M.A. faculty who make up so much of the teaching corpus are really a lot more bound, for teaching, to what textbook vendors tell them and so on. (This is one reason why research is good for teaching – you read journals and book reviews and so on, and do not depend upon textbook vendors for your continuing training). They’re also bound to multiple choice text banks – just so they can defend their grades by pointing to an authority other than themselves.

      Of course the answer would be more workshops, more continuing education, etc., but that’s unaffordable for some and uninteresting for others.


  2. Coming in 201x: Ph.D. Qualifying Examination – English Literature

    1. How, or does, Wordsworth develop irony in his “Lucy” poems in a way that may challenge the idea that “The Romantic” describes a poetic that rejects the “real” in favor of powerful emotion as the primary aesthetic experience? 500 words minimum.

    (a) Yes, with explanation by Theodore Adorno.
    (b) No, with explanation by Harold Bloom.
    (c) John Keats was a pimp.
    (d) Danielle Steele?

    2. Why did you pick this field for an academic career? Was science and math too hard widdle baby?

    (a) What? I just really like to read. And this isn’t easy! Have you ever tried mugging your way through Lacan and Derrida? It only sounds like nonsense because you don’t understand that the focus of literary studies is not qualifiable in scientific terms and what seems like “nonsense” is really often a clever metaphor for the way that language blah blah blah imaginary meh meh meh phallus.
    (b) I’ve always been an English teacher, I’m just sick of those smug little high school shits.
    (c) S = k log W.
    (d) Man, fuck eigenvalues.

    3. Shakespeare: cool bro? Or total gaywad?

    (a) Well they found that pipe full of weed and coke, and I heard he was an atheist, and also gay, and a pedophile, and a sex addict, so I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare is burning in hell and anyone who reads anything but the Bible is also going to burn in hell getting raped by Shakespeare.
    (b) Yes.
    (c) Just read the last like half of Titus Andronicus. Shit. Goes. DOWN.
    (d) Leonardo DiCaprio and that redhead woman. The best part is when the guy hits the propeller. Did you know it was Daniel Day-Lewis’s first movie since Last of the Mohicans? God, he was so dreamy in that….

    4. How have women contributed to literature? Have they? At all? For serious? For any examples you give, the burden is on you to prove that the “female” “author” is not actually a pseudonym of either Samuel Johnson or Evelyn Waugh.

    (a) What do you mean by “women”? “Woman” is not a homologous group united by the coincidence of having been born with a uterus and/or getting “topped” by the Man / men. Differences of race, class, and culture all contribute to differing constructions of “woman” as a social category, while the individual minds belonging to the bodies scripted into that category remain as capable as anyone, male or female, of producing great literary art. Shame on you for asking this kind of marginalizing, pigeonholing question. If “woman” can, as a group, be united by anything, it is only the common experience of watching this hummingbird and completely losing our shit.
    (b) Stephanie Meyer.
    (c) Buffy.
    (d) Wasn’t Dracula written by a woman? I know Buffy is based on it.

    5. You’re about to get an English Ph.D., assuming your proctors are in a good mood / have had enough coffee / did not get rejected by yet another journal / are blind voids of good taste. How are you prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life to keep your head above water and just stay employed with next to zero hope of tenure and six figures of student loan debt, all so most people can tell you to your face that you’re a pampered bullshit artist hell-bent on destroying society and who is probably going to molest all your students?

    (a) Uh, I like books….
    (b) I don’t know what to put for this one so I’m going to write in “Chaucer’s butt” and hope for the best.
    (c) I will use my deep and respectable well of knowledge regarding the history and construction of story and poetry in order to pen beautiful, penetrating works of art and criticism that will be rejected by every publisher until they turn up as moldy, illegible sludge at the back of my storage unit after the lot manager finally goes to clean it out several months after I deliberately o’d’ on phenobarbitol in the guest room of my parents’ house. That’s probably just as well. Everything I’ve ever written is crap. Oh, God, my life has no meaning….
    (d) As long as I finally get to park in the lot next to the student union.


  3. As I sit here on hour three of developing the reading section of a test (finding the sources, editing them, finding words the students can guess based on the grammar and vocab they know, etc) it’s nice to be reminded that teaching to the test is not a bad thing at all so long as you have the right test.


  4. My absolute favorite exams in college were ones where I came out of the test thinking “wow, I just took everything I learned in that class, and had to THINK about it to try to answer these questions I’d never heard or thought about before!” And while all my classmates were complaining, I was in the library reading and devouring even more on the subject, grinning like a crazy person. That class was the only class in college that I felt like I actually learned something, despite the fact that less than 10% of the classes I took had multiple choice exams (I think, actually, only 2 over the course of my 2.5 years). And despite the fact that it was extremely long and asked lots of difficult, synthesizing questions, I got 108% on the exam… (98% if you didn’t count the 10-point extra credit question) – that’s a good teacher, who makes an exam that causes the students to think, but is also possible for students who DO think to both enjoy it and do well. I haven’t really learned the skill of writing good exam questions like that yet, but I do try. (Unfortunately, the vast most students hate exam questions like that – the ones that make them actually USE their brains, so good feedback is hard to come by.)


    1. “Unfortunately, the vast most students hate exam questions like that – the ones that make them actually USE their brains”

      – Oh yes. As one student wrote on my evaluation, “At first I hated her for trying to make us think, but then I realized that I was learning an important skill.”

      Yes, thinking. A fairly important skill. 🙂


  5. It’s tough if you have 500 students in the class. But it is possible to be creative with the format. You can describe a new situation and have students answer a few questions about it based on what they learned previously, in other words using the knowledge they have gained rather than just regurgitating, in multiple choice format. There is unfortunately no way to grade consistently in large classes (>150 students), even with TA’s help.

    But I generally agree- I’ve even seen quizzes used in small sections that use MC for a simple factual question that would have a one-word answer. It doesn’t even make grading easier, and it’s harder to write the quiz!


  6. That is one good thing I have learned in Grad School: creating good tests and written assignments. The methodology teaching courses I had before were awful. Awful.


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