Testing, Teaching and "Negative Capability"

Teaching for the test

I believe in testing.  Some years back, I was even certified as a Government of Canada Language Tester.  On the other hand, my experience as both teacher and tester confirmed my (and everyone else’s) misgivings about standardized testing.  The problems emerge when “the test” becomes the objective rather than one of the means at an educator’s disposal.  Nothing undermines the educational process more thoroughly and renders what is being taught more meaningless than when teachers are forced to teach for “the test.”

To Teach is to connect the unknown to the known

“To teach,” “to educate,” means to connect something new and meaningful to what students already know.  Meaning is context.  To learn something means that you are able to understand what it means or at least give that thing a meaning, which in turn means that you are able to place that thing in a context, to connect it to something that you already know.  That’s what good teachers do. They help students connect something new with what the students already know.  

The Opposite of teaching/learning

If you don’t believe me, consider the opposite of what I am describing.  You are sitting in a classroom, a “teacher” enters and begins talking in a language you don’t know and can’t identify.  The “teacher” continues for an hour and then leaves.  What have you learned?

"Negative capability"

The connection of new and old knowledge which defines teaching and learning rarely happens immediately and doesn’t come easily, which is why in the first class of my first-year undergraduate course I always introduced my students to the concept that the poet John Keats called “negative capability.”  “Negative capability,” which Keats described as the ability that all great poets have and I describe as what students need to have, is the capacity and willingness to hold onto information even when those facts and data may not immediately or completely make sense.  Students need to have confidence in the knowledge and ability of their teachers.  Students need to know and feel that their teachers will eventually help them make sense of what they have learned, help them connect the dots, but also connect all those dots to something that the student already knows about, giving them a fuller context and a meaning.  Teaching for the test means that what is being taught is likely to remain meaningless, to be un-connected from any meaningful context.  

But it gets worse.  

The Wire

If you haven’t had the experience (as I have), consider season four of my favourite television series, The Wire.  Yes, it’s fiction, but it does a good job of demonstrating what can and does happen when funding and teachers’ jobs are tied to students’ performance on a standardized test.  Schools (in this case a school in an underprivileged neighbourhood of Baltimore) will abandon their students’ interests and, by my definition, their education to a total focus on preparing for the test.


The Polarization of testing

Testing has become a polarized issue.  Macro-educators (specialists, administrators, institutions, ministries and governments) give too much importance to standardized testing, and micro-educators ( teachers, especially university teachers) abjure anything that comes close to a sit-down exam.

Traditionally a "discipline" means "an examination is possible"

I was involved in a protracted debate at my university about PhD Comprehensive Exams.  I was in favour of a traditional, three-or-four-hour sit-down exam.  The majority of my colleagues and the students preferred a take-home style of exam.  The single most compelling argument I could offer in favour of the traditional style of exam was that it would require that students study.  In the course of the debate, it came to me that the concept of “studying” had all but disappeared from the field in which I taught.

The Definition of "a test"

My definition of “a test” is that it is something that students have to study for.  A test should be based on what is taught, not the other way around, and not on something else--you’d be surprised how many teachers test something they haven’t really taught (or maybe you wouldn’t).  In addition to causing a student to study (by which I mean to review and reflected upon the course material), the test gives feedback to both the teacher and the student about what has been learned and what hasn’t.  

A Test requires attendance

That’s what I believe, but the truth is the original reason I adopted the habit of testing my undergraduates on a regular basis was to be sure they showed up.  I’ve seen other professors’ syllabi in which they specify that a student who misses two classes would have to drop the course.  This always sounded like a bluff to me, and if it wasn’t it would require taking attendance in every single class.  Not only does that seem un-university-like to me, but do you know how much time you would waste every single class taking the attendance of 60 students?  I wanted my students to show up because my lectures were so brilliant and stimulating that they wouldn’t want to miss one.  On the other hand, I remembered all the really good reasons I came up with for missing classes when I was an undergrad. So I started giving my classes little quizzes every two or three weeks or so.  Students who missed the class would, of course, miss the quiz, and if they missed the class after the quiz they wouldn’t be there to pick up the corrected copy.  This was my original intention, but something strange happened and I never did use the quizzes to check attendance.

Students want to be tested

As it turned out, attendance never proved to be a big enough issue to disturb me.  Students who didn’t show up usually failed or did poorly, and if a student was brilliant enough to do well without attending regularly, more power to her.  Even in a class of 60, I gave 5% of the mark for participation which, of course, required that I be able to identify every student in the room by the end of the semester--not as hard as it sounds.  The strange thing about the quizzes is, as I came to discover, that students really liked them.  

Students like being tested

I remember turning up at the classroom one day around 20 minutes before class (which was my habit) and being surprised to discover that most of the students were already there.  One of the students came up to me to announce that they were studying, had even formed study groups and mine was “the only course that people had to study for.”  At first I thought she was complaining, but she seemed so cheerful about it that I took her announcement as a compliment.  As I got to know the students better, especially those that had more than one class with me, I suggested that we could drop the quizzes, but the students wanted to keep them.  I started analyzing my evaluation process and informed students that overall their marks were lower on the quizzes than on the other forms of evaluation--the essay outline, the essay and exams.  Still students asked to maintain the quizzes.  

Testing is teaching

The quizzes were painless little things, multiple choice, circle the correct answer which could be done in less than ten minutes at the beginning of the class.  (There is a sample at the end of this post.) They were closely tied to the lectures and to notes that I put up on the course web site.  I understood that students appreciated and even enjoyed being tested, and the tests gave me the chance to go over the material a second time (or more) that a number of students hadn’t gotten the first time.  It was also a source of endless curiosity for me why students found some questions easy and others hard.  In fact, the quizzes confirmed the theories of teaching and learning that I’ve been talking about in this post.  

Students learn what connects to what they already know and think about

Let me explain.  When I taught American Literature, I always had a few quiz questions on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  It didn’t surprise me that students always got the answer right to the question:  “Why was Blanche Dubois fired from her job as a high-school teacher?”  The answer “that she had had an affair with one of her students” was bound to have caught the attention of students not that far out of high school themselves--not to mention that anything sexual or scandalous is libel to stick in the mind.  Still it surprised me that students always seemed to know that the hotel where Blanche went with various men was called “the Flamingo,”  until one day I was driving down Main Street passed the pub which I knew to be the favourite hang out of students from the university and I noticed for the first time that the run-down hotel next door was called “the Flamingo.”  It is so obvious.  Students hold onto information that they can connect to, that has meaning/context for them, that’s what learning is.

The Evils of standardized testing

I believe that testing can facilitate the learning process, but it can also have the opposite effect.  The motivation/inspiration for this posting was the photograph (below) that one of my former students who now has school-age children shared on Facebook.  

The woman who took this photograph of her daughter in tears as she tried to correct her homework wrote a short piece explaining the image and telling the horror story of her daughter’s struggle to complete a standardized test that American schools are now imposing.  I have never read so many heartfelt responses to a single posting.  Even for someone like me, a career educator with a super bright child, I can remember how turning my kid over to the educational system felt like surrendering him to kidnappers.  If I made one false move the system could punish my child in retaliation.

This photograph of a little girl in tears is a perfect icon of an educational system gone terribly wrong.  One not governed by teachers and parents but by a Wall-Street mentality that sees pain and suffering as evidence of austerity, productivity and good business.  This image made me think about how that terrible, moving photograph of a Vietnamese girl running down the road naked and burned after a napalm attack helped to turn the hearts and minds of Americans against the Vietnam War.  It also made me think about another famous photograph of a young Black man being attacked by a German Shepard, which Malcolm Gladwell (in David and Goliath) describes as provoking a turning point in the civil rights movement in the States.  I’d like to think that this image of a little girl’s sadness could provoke some positive change.

In Quebec we talk a lot about “values” these days.  Any society which would wittingly put pressure on and cause stress for five-year-olds for motives as feeble as standardized testing and statistics gathering has a serious problem with its values.

PS:  Here’s an example of a literature quiz for first-year students:

First Quiz   
Instructions:  Circle the letter of the
best answer or completion to each of the following questions or statements.
1.  The word “quaint” in the phrase “your quaint honour” in the poem “To His Coy Mistress” is  . .
a.  a synonym for “great.”
b.  a metaphor for “cute” or “old fashioned.”
c.  a metonym for virginity.
d.  a pun on the word “queynte.”
e.  a hyperbole.
2.  The Latin expression “carpe diem” means . . .
a.  “god is dead.”
b.  “broken by the gods.”
c.  “I think therefore I am.”
d.  “buyer beware.”
e.  “seize the day.”
3.  The relationship between a sign and its referent can be . . . 
a.  discursive, non-discursive or logical.
b.  iconic, motivated or arbitrary.
c.  cultural, natural or ecological.
d.  physical, biological or neurological.
e.  phonetic, syntactic or grammatical.
4. The idea that words get their meanings from referents; that is, from things in the world is called . .
a.  constructionism.
b.  anthropologism.
c.  semiotics.
d.  linguistics.
e.  essentialism.
5.  How did the people of the Country of the Blind explain Nunez?
a.  He came from a strange and mystical place called Bogota.
b.  He came from rocks and was still unformed.
c.  He was a messenger from God.
d.  He was an alien from another world.
e.  He was a mountain climber who had fallen in an avalanche.
6.  Three traditional forms of irony are . . . 
a.  non-discursive, non-referential and aesthetic.
b.  poetry, prose and drama.
c.  verbal, situational and dramatic.
d.  Greek, Latin and Christian.
e.  textual, sociological and psychological.              
7.  Jacques Derrida defined “deconstruction” as . . .
a.  recognizing literature as the best writing that a society has produced.
b.  being true to one’s principles, beliefs and convictions.
c.  being conscious of the historical sedimentation of language.
d.  acknowledging that truth is beauty and beauty truth.
e.  the analysis of tropes and figures of speech in a literary text.
8.  “Vegetable love” is an example of . . .
a.  an oxymoron
b.  personification.
c.  a simile.
d.  an allusion.
e.  hyperbole.
9.  A “feminist” reading of “To His Coy Mistress” would be  . . .
a.  a sociological and resistant reading.
b.  a psychological and psychoanalytic reading.
c.  a formal and textual reading.
d.  a literal and historical reading.
e.  a reading of the poem as being ironic.
10.  How did the short story “The Country of the Blind” end? 
a.  Nunez returned to Bogota.
b.  Nunez and Medina-Saroté were married
c.  Nunez was accepted as the one-eyed King 
d.  Nunez lay down in the mountains, staring at the stars.
e.  Nunez was locked up because he was insane.


  1. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, now has a TV ad in which he says: "While the state's new Common Core curriculum is moving in the right direction, testing on it is premature. It causes anxiety, and it's just unfair. I won't let our children's scores be counted against them." News reports claim that he is reacting to the backlash against the testing.

  2. This report, "Real Accountability or an Illusion of Success," does a pretty good job of undercutting the use of standardized testing in Ontario schools. http://testingillusion.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/illusion_of_success_EN.pdf


Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Test Question: How Did Romeo Respond When He Was Told He Will Be Having Sex with Juliet?

On Reading The National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

The Trump Vision for Education in America

The Pronoun Wars

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear!” Really?

How We Train University Students to Write Poorly (with Addendum)

What Is English Grammar? More Importantly, What Isn't English Grammar?

Canadian Politicians Were Caught Like Deer in the Headlights, but Why Are Canadian Journalists Censuring any Discussion of the Merits of Meng's Case?