Annie Murphy Paul Restores Faith in Humanity with “Turn Testing into Learning”

I’m a little on the critical side. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. I’m one of those people who reads an article, looks at the comments section, and cringes. As a writer and English teacher, errors (except my own, by the way) leap off the page with the force of a freight train. Cliches literally make me gag. I can’t help it; back in the day, English teachers made you diagram sentences, which leaves its mark. So, you might imagine how distracted I can become when taking an online course. The last time was for a post-grad class for my administrative degree, and I became that curmudgeon who complains that I should be getting my education face to face, not some newfangled computer learning. Not very enlightened, I know. Luckily, I recently embarked upon Annie Murphy Paul’s assessment course, “Turn Testing into Learning” and was pleasantly reminded of the remarkable benefits of online learning, while also restoring my faith in humanity.

The main takeaway from the course is the absolute necessity to reframe assessments into learning experiences both before and after the actual administration of the test. The course acknowledges the exceptionally wrong-minded ways that assessments have been used without seeming to point fingers; in fact, Annie Murphy Paul’s even-tempered approach to the often maligned testing industry allows for nuanced conversations between and amongst course participants.

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The Community

Without a doubt, one of the major accomplishments of this course is the community of learners and blog contributors. With your registration, you have access to a Facebook page moderated by Annie Murphy Paul, which she explains in her introduction to the course as the “forum where big questions and concerns get discussed.” Additionally, there is a discussion page for each lesson, also moderated by Annie. I spent as much time reading others’ responses as I did on the course itself.

The caliber of conversation–replete with research and references–is a testament to the importance of this course and the topic of assessment. Trust me when I say that I felt out of my league when following some of the threads, and I love that feeling of being challenged. I only participated with a few comments because I was so taken with reading the comments, which, as I mentioned, can frequently be a huge distraction, but in this case added to the course itself.

Affirmative Testing

As a teacher, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the course is the way that testing is met as an opportunity, not a roadblock. The course provides tools that are the favorite of all participants in Professional Development: materials and resources that you can use immediately with students. As an aside, I am also the parent of a Type-A stressing kind of student, and the lessons regarding “Micro-tests” and “Pre-tests” has armed me for both school and home.

Significantly, the course uses exciting brain research to support what good teachers do all the time. In my class, I always tell students that if we’ve done the learning correctly, there is not a need to “study” for the test. At first, they don’t understand how that could be true, but after we layer in low/no stakes assessments, they begin to see that they are metacognitively analyzing their gaps, reflecting on them, and we are bridging those gaps with further instruction or recursive conversations.

Annie Murphy Paul’s explanation that “Re-exposing ourselves to information at intervals spread out over time is the best way to move that information into our long-term memory. (Structuring those re-exposures as low-stakes tests—i.e., retrieval practice—works best of all)” encapsulates the type of work I believe is important. Affirmative testing seems to be a way to continually formatively assess, a “best practice” for 21st century educators.

Faith in humanity?

At this point, you probably understand that this was a challenging and affirming course for me. However, it might not be clear how it has restored my faith in humanity; after all, that’s a pretty big claim, and I will refine a little. What I mean by this statement is that in the madness of political posturing, opting in and opting out, Common Core bashing and defending, I’d grown weary of assessments and conversations around what “close reading” really means. I’d tired of broaching difficult topics simple because it all seemed so convoluted.

This course has given me the language to say what I mean, to reclaim some of the important core beliefs fleshed out in ways that were unfamiliar to me. For example, Annie Murphy Paul describes the process I’ve always deemed “close reading” with a nuanced explanation and research: “A study led by Micheline Chi of Arizona State University found that students who were prompted to self-explain as they read the passage above performed 10 percent better on a test of the material than students who were not prompted to self-explain.”

In the introduction, Annie Murphy Paul promises, “This insight activity is intended to give you a fresh perspective on testing: what it’s for, what its effects on learning are, which emotions it inspires.” This course makes good on that promise, and I highly recommend investing the time and money to everyone from administrator, to teacher, to parent because taming the testing monster should be a priority for us all. 

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY.

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