Does test prep have to look like test prep?

The test is coming! The test is coming! Break out the practice questions and bubble sheets!!

We know that some of our students are required to take large-scale assessments, and that the results matter, to a greater or lesser degree, to students, parents, teachers, schools, and districts. Naturally, we want our students to perform to the best of their ability on these assessments.

So that means lots of practice multiple choice tests, right? Maybe it would be best if we model all our assessments on the format of these exams? And wouldn’t it be helpful if students in the grades leading up to the test years also get lots of practice on multiple choice tests?

Not so fast!

Multiple choice tests have their place. They’re straightforward to administer and easy to grade. They can provide some evidence of learning, especially if you’re assessing a student’s knowledge.

But… there’s danger in over-doing multiple choice – and, the information you can get from a multiple choice test is limited.

They require students to recognize correct responses, rather than create ones of their own.

Students can answer questions about a skill, but that’s different than demonstrating the skill themselves.

Multiple choice questions can tell us if a student got the right answer, but not always how.

They tell us if a student got the wrong answer, but not always why.

They aren’t very accessible to our students who have learning challenges, and the comprehension load means that students whose first language is not English are at a disadvantage.

When you look at a Program of Studies for any subject or grade level, it’s easy to find outcomes that simply are not assessable at all through a multiple choice question. That’s why it’s important that we gather evidence in a variety of other ways.

So, how do we prepare our students to do their best on large-scale assessments? If not lots of multiple choice practice tests, then what?

Here are some review strategies that don’t require students to get hopelessly lost in bubble sheets before the big day.

Debates can help students review big ideas and supporting details on a number of topics, which can be invaluable in preparing for written response questions. This activity can also provide important background information for source based multiple choice items.

Have students work in groups to answer a section of multiple choice items. Ask students to identify the correct answer, and to analyze why the other responses are incorrect. By so doing, they can become familiar with how distractors are embedded within the question design.

Use a jigsaw format to help students review large amounts of content, and then prepare to share what they have learned with other groups of students. Of course, teachers will need to oversee the information to ensure its accuracy before it is shared with other groups. This technique can motivate students to do their best work as they realize the benefits of working together and sharing.  

Ask students to deconstruct a higher order thinking sample question to determine the background knowledge required in order to answer the question. Students can work together to develop questions (and answers) based on this background knowledge. These questions can be shared with other groups of students or as a whole class review prior to working to solve the answer to the question.

Game show formats can be used to help students become confident with background information they will need in order to answer more in-depth questions on the test. Be sure that the highest level categories require students to synthesize their knowledge and skills in order to answer the type of questions the curriculum requires and that they are likely to see on the test.

All of the above strategies can be used to help students not only review the content and skills they need to know, but they can also help students learn more about how multiple choice tests are designed. These strategies can help students prepare for the test without adding more anxiety.

And the best part of all – none of these review strategies require additional marking! After all, if a student is anxious about an upcoming large-scale test, and the preparation for the test includes multiple days of practice tests that are marked, we are potentially accumulating more and more evidence of what the student doesn’t know, or doesn’t feel confident to do. Our students don’t need any more anxiety in their lives!

We can change all that – and perhaps even have a bit of fun in the meantime. And who doesn’t need a bit of laughter and true engagement at a time like this?

This term, this year – let’s make test prep not even remotely look like test prep!

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