Teaching with the Test: Questions that Build Students’ Self-Awareness

question mark on computer

Mention “teaching to the test” among educators and you will certainly hear a lot about what is wrong with education today and probably more about the importance of teaching critical thinking (and how this cannot be done when you are teaching to the test). Let me suggest a slightly different take on working with tests and the development of, if not critical thinking, greater self-awareness among students as learners—teaching with the test as a form of Socratic mentoring.

What do I mean by teaching with the test? Because I work with a competency-based model and am not the one responsible for grading students, I see my interactions with students primarily in terms of providing structure and guidance for self-reflection to assist students in becoming more active and self-aware learners. Teaching with the test means providing opportunities for students to practice reading, analyzing, and answering questions before taking high-stakes assessments to complete the course. Because the purpose of the practice question is to structure conversation, the question should lead to additional questions and opportunities for students to do the hard work of explanation and clarification.

In addition, because the initial practice question stands, in a sense, between the student and me, it opens up space for self-reflection and the development of metacognitive skills. In a typical exchange, a student might encounter the following questions as they work with multiple-choice style questions: Why did you select “c” as the best option? What was the reasoning behind eliminating selection “a”? If we rephrase the question to read “x”, how does this affect your understanding of the question? If you focus on the relationship between concept “x” and concept “y,” does this help you to narrow down your options? If we change the facts of the scenario to include “x,” would one of the available options still be the best choice? As you can see, the method here is to respond, as much as possible, to student answers with additional questions. This brings me to the link between teaching with the test and what I am calling Socratic mentoring.

What do I mean by Socratic mentoring? Notice I am not using the term Socratic method. In part, this is because I want to avoid some of the debates associated with the real Socrates or what it means to describe a method as Socratic, and focus instead on how three images of Socrates found in three of the Platonic dialogues (torpedo fish, gadfly, and midwife) can provide insight into our work with students.

Meno describes Socrates as a torpedo fish because of the paralyzing effect of his questioning. Socrates accepts part of this description by claiming the shock of ignorance prepares the way for understanding. I like to think of the use of practice questions as a way of providing this “shock” by arresting a typical student’s flow of thought (e.g., reading and rereading the text/notes or watching and rewatching videos). In a way, the goal here is to get students to stop and think about what they are doing. How do you get students to stop and think (about what they are doing)? How do you respond to the student who seems paralyzed by your questions?

In the Apology Socrates describes himself as a “gadfly” and Athens as a “steed” that needs to be “stirred into life.” I like to think about the use of practice questions as a kind of desirable difficulty to provoke and wake up the “sleeping student” (i.e., a student who takes a thoughtless or unreflective approach to learning). The practice question is annoying like the gadfly because it forces them to get moving, to make a choice and explain that choice. How do you wake up the “sleeping” student (from thoughtless and unreflective learning)? How do you respond to the student irritated by your provocation?

In the Theaetetus Socrates compares himself to a midwife–“barren” but assisting those in labor with delivery. Students frequently mistake mere familiarity for understanding of course material (think the fluency illusion). I view practice questions as providing the structure for helping students to unmask apparent understanding as mere familiarity. How often have we heard students say something like the following: “I know the material, but I do not know how to answer this question?” Students need structure and practice in developing metacognitive skills. Teaching with the test is, I hope, one way to provide that structure. How do you get students to take charge of their own learning? How do you support students in developing greater self-awareness as a learner?

When we mentor our students as a torpedo fish, gadfly, and midwife, we may be helping them to reimagine and do the hard work of learning. This labor connects nicely with the concept of generation. “The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with information or the solution is known as generation” (Brown, et al., 2014, p. 105). It is also consistent with a central insight associated with learner-centered teaching: “the one who does the work does the learning.”

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H. L, & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). 8/8/2017. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/166

Barry Sharpe is a course mentor at Western Governors University.