Can students learn how to solve mathematics problems by taking maths tests?

By Francesca Borgonovi, British Academy Global Professor, UCL Institute of Education and Francesco Avvisati, Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD.

Few subjects in education spark as much controversy as tests. Many people recognise that tests are useful to students because they provide a strong incentive to study rather than procrastinate; they can help teachers because they provide information about what students know and what they do not know; and they are useful to education policy makers because they promote accountability. But most people consider tests as little more than a bitter medicine that one needs to swallow to get better; and many worry that, as with medicine, too much testing may have toxic effects – so much so that “teaching to the test” and “learning for a test” are seen as diverting valuable time and resources from education.

But tests are, in essence, problem sets that students are asked to solve in a controlled setting. As the famous mathematician Paul Halmos once wrote, “The best way to learn is to do; the worst way to teach is to talk.” By attempting to solve problems that appear in a practice test, students do mathematics. Indeed, in a study we recently published, we find that tests are not neutral events; they can be powerful learning experiences. Using data on almost 20,000 15-year-old students who participated in the 2012 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) we show that participating in a single low-stakes test leads to a small gain in mathematical problem-solving skills, even in the absence of feedback from teachers. We also find that learning effects persist over the short term – between one and seven days. Crucially, we find that the effect of sitting a test on subsequent performance reflects more than just the power of recall or the effect associated with having learnt test-taking strategies.

How large is the learning gain in mathematics associated with sitting a maths test?

Granted, the learning effects that we found were small – but that was to be expected given that the difference in the amount of test practice within our sample was tiny. One additional hour of test-taking practice was associated with an improved performance of about 2% of a standard deviation in a final test designed to identify how well students know how to apply mathematical principles and procedures. In a real classroom setting, the effects may be greater if, for example, several short practice tests were organised over a period of a few weeks.

Although test-practice effects in mathematics were positive, on average, we also show that the benefits of testing accrue mostly to boys.

How can we make the most of the effect of practice tests?

Our study suggests that lessons that include practice tests bear the promise of improving students’ ability to apply their knowledge of principles and procedures to new, real-world problems, although the effects are not large and appear to accrue, in the absence of feedback, mostly to boys. If teachers provide corrective feedback and schedule several short test-practice sessions throughout a given period, the effect of test-taking on subsequent performance could be even greater. Girls might benefit more, too, if their teachers give them high-quality feedback. Evidence from other research shows that teachers’ feedback plays an important role in boosting girls’ confidence in their ability to succeed in mathematics.

This post also appears at: https://oecdedutoday.com/solve-mathematics-problems-with-maths-tests/

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in curriculum & assessment, Education policy, learning, Schools, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “Can students learn how to solve mathematics problems by taking maths tests?
  1. […] Testele la matematică, văzute adesea ca o “pilulă amară” pe care trebuie să o iei ca să-ți meargă bine, pot fi experiențe de învățare puternice, argumentează autorii unui nou studiu britanic, având ca temă: pot elevii să învețe cum să rezolve probleme, dând astfel… […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

UCL Institute of Education

This blog is written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Our blog is for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
Keep up with the latest IOE research
IOE Tweets

Enter your email address and we'll let you know when a new post is published

Join 44,181 other followers