How frequently should students be tested?

iStock_000021886001XSmall (1)Advocates of frequent testing believe that testing increases the amount of time students study by stimulating review and practice. They also believe that frequent testing provides students with feedback on their work, which results in improved achievement. Robert L. Bangers-Drowns, State University of New York-Albany, and James and Chen Lin Kulik, University of Michigan, analyzed the research studies on frequent testing. They hypothesized that these purported benefits are not actually realized in many classrooms.

Research, according to Bangert-Drowns et al., has concentrated on three disctinct forms of testing: questions included in textbooks, mastery testing, and ordinarly classroom quizzes and tests. Factual textbook questions do help improve performance on related test items, but they appear to inhibit slightly the learning of unrelated material. Evidently, students tend to ignore information that is not specifically covered by factual questions in the text. However, when textbook questions are more complex, requiring students to interpret or make inferences from the text, they appear to have a small but positive effect on the learning of all information – including what was not specifically covered by questions.

Student learning and testing

Mastery learning environments – in which students are tested frequently and advance to new material only when they demonstrate mastery – have also been shown to increase student achievement. These researchers claim, however, that such results do not prove that frequent testing by itself is responsible for improved performance. In mastery learning environments, the benefits of frequent testing cannot be distinguished from the benefits of other aspects of mastery learning, such as immediate feedback on test items and corrective instruction.

Bangert-Drowns et al. looked at the results of 40 studies which examined the effects of test frequency in ordinary classrooms. Their purpose was to analyze: (1) student learning under different testing conditions as measured by an achievement test at the end of the course; (2) student performance when the same quiz items were presented either in many short quizzes or on longer, less frequent quizzes; and (3) the attitudes of students toward classes with different testing schedules.

Testing and student attitudes

In classes in which tests were administered frequently, student achievement improved on course post-tests. However, a single test during a 15-week course provided almost the same degree of improvement. Students were significantly disadvantaged only when they took no tests at all in preparation for the end-of-the-course exam. Although more tests generally resulted in more improvement, the gains were smaller with each additional test.

Using identical test questions, 14 studies attempted to determine how test frequency alone affected post-test achievement. Although all students answered the same questions during the term, the questions were distributed differently in different classes; some classes took a few long quizzes, whereas others took many more shorter quizzes. Results revealed that students scored higher on shorter, more frequent quizzes than on longer, more inclusive ones. However, performance on course post-tests did not differ, indicating that greater frequency of quizzes, by itself, did not improve long-term achievement.

Four studies measured the attitudes of students toward courses in which they were exposed to either frequent testing or infrequent testing. In all four studies, students in frequently tested classes rated their courses more favorably than did students in less frequently tested classes.

These researchers conclude that the conditions that characterize ordinary classroom testing are different than those described in research on textbook questions or in studies of mastery learning. Ordinary classroom tests are often used without much feedback or corrective instruction. Frequent testing alone increases achievement only slightly. However, frequent testing appears to create more positive student attitudes toward a class.


“Effects of Frequent Classroom Testing” Journal of Educational Research Volume 85, Number 2, pp. 89-99.

Published in ERN May/June 1992 Volume 5 Number 3

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