Want More Student Engagement? Ditch the Tests.

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By: Steve Tippins

Over 20 years ago, I did something that was radical at the time—I decided to teach a class without giving a single test. I would evaluate students based on their papers, projects and participation in class. My goal was to increase student engagement by eliminating the question “Will this be on the test?” and encouraging critical thought over memorizing the right answer.

My experiment was so successful that I decided to implement it in the rest of my classes, and I’ve never gone back. I enjoy teaching more, and my students enjoy their classes more. That said, going test-free was not without a few bumps in the road.

In this article, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned in 20 years of teaching without tests.

What Do Tests Measure?

For many years, tests have been used to measure student learning. However, tests, particularly multiple-choice tests, have become artificial measurements of learning. With tests at any level, you get students learning just to pass the test. With multiple-choice tests, a student can possibly guess the correct answer without knowing the material at all.

Most students will center their concerns on their grade and not the underlying material so the testing process becomes centered upon a number and not learning.

If students are focused on their scores, then their engagement centers around the number and how they might be able to find a way to increase the number—not the material covered by the test.

What Do Universities and Employers Want?

Years ago, I did research with recruiters and they said that they were looking for new hires with strong writing and oral communication skills, not technical material covered in many classes. In my discussions with college admissions professionals, I have been told that homeschooled candidates are looked upon kindly as they tend to be independent learners.

When tests are the major grading factor in a class then student engagement tends to revolve around questions like “do we have to know this for the test?” If yes, then students will dutifully take notes. If no, then most students will just tune out the material.

For most teachers that I have talked with, an ideal day in a class is when students come in prepared and ready to ask questions about the material and beyond the material. I was once told that a true measure of learning is to take the material being learned and apply it in another situation. Tests do not lend themselves to this.

Giving Up on Tests

Over the years, I have tried many approaches to evaluating learning. I even included humorous questions in a test to see if it would reduce stress. For the most part students reported lower stress but it did not help or hurt their test scores at all. It was not until I came upon the idea of eliminating tests deeper engagement began.

Over 20 years ago I gave up giving tests because I didn’t think they measured actual learning. A surprising byproduct of this decision was enhanced student involvement/engagement in class. Gone were the days of responding to questions like “will this be on the test?”

Those questions were replaced with discussions about the implications of the material presented in class and conversations and debates about “what if?” scenarios related to classroom material.

I won’t deny the many times we have drifted off-topic, but I believe that learning does not happen in a linear fashion. Sometimes we need to veer off the path to get to where we want to be. Additionally, many times drifting off-topic has allowed a class to work its way back to the topic with a deeper understanding of the material.

Allowing open discussion like this (without there being a “right” answer, which is just a test in a subtler form) dramatically increased engagement in my classes. Students weren’t just expected to learn about what I thought was important—they were invited to talk about and explore what was important to them and relate it to the course material.

I no longer dispensed bits of knowledge like a gumball machine of personal finance; instead, I was a collaborator, weaving the threads of my syllabus together with the threads of their interests and their lives.

The Hard Part

In private discussions, colleagues have shared with me concerns that dropping tests may make more work for them. This is particularly true when you consider that premade tests accompany most textbooks these days. Others are concerned that they won’t be able to accurately evaluate students’ knowledge and understanding of the material.

From an evaluation standpoint, there are options other than tests. I use papers and projects of many types such as a final project in a Personal Finance class where students have to plan out their future life in 10-year increments using the material covered in the class. Over time, I have evolved my paper grading standards to include a rubric where 70% of the grade is based upon the coverage of the topic, 20% on the writing/grammar and 10% for what I call the “wow factor.” This gives students room to go above and beyond and to explore different paths.

Moving away from tests does put a burden on the teacher or professor to be ready to encourage student participation with many different types of prompts and a degree of patience. As a society, we have trained students to be passive learners, so eliciting their active participation does take time and effort.

The Good Part

All that said, I find the effort more than worth it. Sitting in a class where students slowly begin to take over a discussion topic and push each other to explore a theme more deeply is intensely rewarding. Seeing a wave of “aha” moments is what makes this job so rewarding.

Incidentally, I’ve observed that grad students who attend test-free classes tend to fare better when it comes time to write their dissertations. Based on my own (admittedly biased) observations, these students are more likely to avoid the infamous All But Dissertation (ABD) status, where they finish every requirement for their degree except their dissertation. I believe this is because they’ve practiced the skills of analysis, critical thought and turning their thoughts and observations into words on paper. In short, they’re used to independent learning.

Final Thoughts

Traditional classrooms tend to be centered around evaluating student learning through the use of tests. Tests themselves can induce stress in students and maybe a poor measure of learning for some students. Also, tests can limit learning to “what is on the test.” In an example of addition by subtraction, eliminating tests can actually broaden student engagement and learning. It may take a leap of faith to do this and more work, but the rewards are there for both students and teachers.

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Steve Tippins, Ph.D., has served as a professor and Ph.D. mentor for several universities; he has authored a book and currently coaches doctoral students and recent graduates.

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