What if tests helped students learn in the face of stress?

10 December 2016

Listen to debates about school tests or read media headlines and the story will be similar the world over: damaging tests cause stress and hamper learning. The perception of testing is toxic. And yet, what if we went about testing in a way that could reduce stress? Could we flip the association linking testing and negative stress to instead recognise the benefits of testing for learning as making our students more resilient in the face of stress?

It is a paradoxical notion that more testing could help student better retain their memories and learning in the face of exam stress is odd to fathom. It is important to understand that there are different types of tests and some prove more helpful than others. The testing that gains a most negative reputation is of course high stakes standardised testing. Researchers have proven time and time again, that by undertaking regular low stakes tests – otherwise known as ‘retrieval practice’ – proves to mitigate stress in future tests and increase performance.

The link between stress, testing and memory has established that the cortisol sparked by stress effectively damages our attempts to make memories. This has seen a common-sense approach in schools to protect students from undue stress.

New research, by Amy M. Smith, Victoria A. Floerke and Ayanna K. Thomas, entitled ‘Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress‘, has shown that students (120 were involved in the study) who studied in different ways responded to stress in different ways in a test the day after.

The study compares two different study methods on behalf of the students in trial. Whereas half of students undertake restudying/re-reading materials; the other grouping undertook retrieval practice. These two groups of 60 were subdivided in half once more, 30 being put in a stressed condition and 30 being in an unstressed state.

Now, when tested a day later, students who studied by re-reading the test items (concrete nouns and images of those nouns) performed as you would expect: students who were stressed performed worse than those students in the stressed condition. However, crucially, for those students who had undertaken the retrieval practice, they proved more resistant to the stressful condition and proved to perform better than those students who had restudied the material.

This evidence aligns with large scale research by the likes of Dunlosky et al., that shows re-reading is the most common revision strategy undertaken by students, but it proves to be inferior to testing as a learning strategy.

So, what can busy teachers take away from this new research? First, it should make us consider how we consider testing in relation to learning. Rather than testing being an end in itself, we can and should consider it as a powerful learning experience – or testing as learning. Rather than inducing greater stress, we may mitigate our students’ stress by getting them to undertake low stakes testing that helps them preform and supporting them to learn independently in this way.

Here are some prompt questions to consider:

  • Does your curriculum model use regular low stakes testing to better prepare students for standardised testing? 
  • How do we help to change the perception that links testing to negative stress?
  • How do we best train students to learn more effectively and utilise the ‘testing effect’?


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School 

Posted on 10 December 2016
Posted in: Evidence
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