5 Reasons Why We Want Learning and Not “Right Answers”

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Often when we test, our purpose is to assess progress toward learning objectives.  But there’s an inherent problem with over-testing or focusing too much on test scores. Testing can de-motivate learners. If our purpose is to improve learning, then we need to pay close attention to how testing impacts the motivation to learn. 

What Is Our Focus When We Test? 

Perfection?

When we test, we are comparing the performance of a person to a fixed standard. So the focus is on perfection. Since perfection is subjective, we are judging how close each person comes to a subjective measure of where they “should” be. Judging can demotivate learners, since it takes individual learning and meaning out of the equation and compares everyone to a subjective standard. When we test, feedback comes in the forms of marks indicating “wrong answers.”

Progress?

When we measure progress, improvement, skill development and learning (without focusing on test scores), the focus is on learning. Since learning is meaningful individually, the feedback can motivate the learner to continue learning.

“The desire to learn, to pursue the truth at all costs, cannot be taught. It can only be awakened by example, shown as a living reality. The greatest task of a teacher is to demonstrate, by her or his own example, the desirability and attraction, the unparalleled invigoration and joy, of being a lifetime learner and pursuer of truth.”

Vance G. Morgan, PH.D., Professor of Philosophy, Providence College,  in The Right Question, Providence College Magazine, Spring 2013

Which do we want – perfection or learning? Here are 5 reasons why I think we want learning and not “right answers:”

5 Reasons Why We Want Learning and Not “Right Answers”

  1. The stress from worrying about how someone will perform on a test can cause stress and interferes with learning. 
  2. “Perfection” is difficult to define – We could get a different answer from each person we asked. How will we be sure that the questions and answers represent current and relevant thinking across disciplines?
  3. There will always be a need for us to learn and adapt to new research and insights. The subjective measure of “perfection” on tests will need to change constantly to keep up – who revises their tests twice a month?
  4.  Testing can demotivate learners by counting “wrong” their higher level thinking that doesn’t fit into the “right choices.”
  5. We need to provide support and encouragement more than we judge and correct so that learning is enjoyable.

Is Testing “The Right Answer?”

Testing is a form of judgment, where we compare someone’s answers to the answers someone else came up with that were determined to be the “right” answers. This means that we may have to count the answer wrong if someone gives a more complex answer than the one we are looking for, or a more creative one, or a more current one incorporating newer research!

According to Harvard School of Education Professor Daniel Horetz, “there are limits to the meaning we can derive from test scores…The problem, in Koretz’s view, is that we tend to overestimate what tests can do. Tests are not designed to summarize all that students and schools can do.”

Because schools are evaluated based on test scores, there is a tendency to focus the test questions on the minimum level of knowledge required, rather than on a high standard of accomplishment.

Sandra Stotsky, Professor of Educational Reform at the University of Arkansas says that “Test driven, or force-fed, learning can not enrich and promote the traits necessary for life success.”

The Need For Positive Feedback 

Before you test, think about your purpose. Is it to judge someone against one interpretation of the “right” answer, or to determine whether someone has mastered complex content that includes many variables?  To support good judgment and decision making, we need to focus more time on good judgment and decision making and less time on narrowing things down to one right answer. Our ultimate goal is to ignite the love for learning, and to encourage learners to continue to stretch and grow. That will require lots of support and positive feedback (and minimal testing).

Also see: Testing, Teaching, Learning PBS.org

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