Testing to the Teach: how to give your students the itch to keep learning despite themselves

In a traditional test, one does not give feedback at all. This is a result of the limitations of the medium; give feedback on paper and you also give the game away. Working online, you can give extended feedback as soon as the question is answered, but how do you do it for maximum effect?

The problem we are trying to overcome: “in one ear, and out the other”.

If you just tell a student something, they will generally be able to repeat it and show you that they have ‘learned’ it. An hour later, it will be gone. It won’t automatically move from short-term to long-term memory. Classic teaching technique seeks to address this through repetition; language teachers, in particular, generally try to follow Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’ when structuring reviews. However, repetition is not the only solution, neither is it always practical to apply.

Without oodles of repetition, simply giving students ‘the right answer’ doesn’t just fail them, it cons them. Immediately after the quiz, they think they’ve ‘got it’, but when they need it in real life, it’s gone. Many students will start blaming themselves and believing it is they, not we, who are stupid.

My preferred solution is what Milton Erickson called “building response potential”. I try to pique the students’ curiosity so they are motivated to go off an learn the answer for themselves. How they learn it will vary; they may look it up in a textbook, discuss it with friends or sit down and work it out on paper. They will come back and back until they are satisfied – thus doing the repetition for themselves.

Another way of describing the principle is “give them the itch”. In the end, they will just have to scratch.

How do you do this in practice? Here are some suggestions:

  • Explain why they got it wrong.
  • Give a hint, but not the whole answer.
  • Tease them in some other way.
  • Remind them of the mnemonic, without actually giving the answer.
  • Remind them of a parallel.
  • Use a rhyme or a riddle.
  • Remind them of the rule or derivation method.
  • Hurl a joking insult (thanks Andrew Field for this idea)

If you hold in the front of your mind that your main aim is to increase students’ emotional state of curiosity, you’ll soon develop your own preferred way of doing it.


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4 responses to “Testing to the Teach: how to give your students the itch to keep learning despite themselves”

  1. creating a bit of cognitive conflict makes them value the answer. If they’ve had to work something out, it’ll have more meaning to them.

  2. A very useful article to read is ‘The Power of Feedback’ by John Hattie. and In context the suggestion would be that the real learning effects will occur when the student reflects on the ‘wrong answers’ and that peer mediated reflection would be the most effective style to do so. For a given question If you match a ‘correct student’ to a ‘wrong student’ (but without saying who’s correct) and have them discuss the merits of their relative answer, this will have the largest effect on learning. This of course is why the advice given on Yacapaca to determine the best discriminating question is a very positive move.

    • Student-matching like that is a fascinating pattern that I had not come across before – thanks! It is similar to what we do in our experimental SPA system, where the chunk size is larger than it is in an objective-style question.

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