This is the third in a four part blog series on how to help students pick up information, keep information, and retrieve information. In essence, this series of blogs will define how to help students learn and possibly perform better on tests. Learning is the act of picking up information, sorting out what is important, putting important information in long term memory, and retrieving the information on demand.  Learning is active and somewhat automatic. Do we remember everything we have ever done? Why do we only remember some things? (This blog series is related to a white paper, which explores these topics in greater detail. If you missed the first or second blog in this series, you can find them here and here.)

Critics of testing often cite concerns about the pressure it puts on students. The reality is that we may never rid all students of all test anxiety. However, imagine a student who knows and can recall key content information on demand. Or one who is so comfortable with the format of the exam that he’d view testing situations as he would any other class period.

In the first blog in this series, I discussed situational learning. Diving a bit deeper, situational learning is defined as the process by which knowledge is picked up when a learner is put into some type of simulation. Let’s note here that simulation-enhanced learning can potentially increase test scores.  Simulations put the student front and center in the learning activity. If the student is engaged, the brain produces endorphins that cause attention span and information uptake to increase dramatically. This is called a “flow state.”

Many commercial educational products offer simulations that allow the student to conduct research, answer questions and produce a product.  In most cases the simulations simply ask the student to answer questions while manipulating a simulation. In the case of two highly rated programs, the students not only answer questions about the content, they must produce a paper on the topic that is then presented to a specific audience. Engaging the student to produce a performance piece based on a fun interaction helps to create a flow state.

Simulation-enhanced learning is assessed using performance assessments. Unlike a multiple-choice assessment, a performance assessment usually consists of a stimulus — a passage, audio, video, chart, graphic, etc. — followed by a series of individual items all tied to the stimulus, culminating in a product. Although performance assessments may take on different formats and different names depending on the school system or state, performance assessments all include some type of stimulus, a stem to set up the questions that follow, and a series of questions in differing formats leading to a product.

In the second blog, I discussed assessment in learning. Performance assessments are generally used in the classroom as formative assessment. The student answers questions and is given feedback. Getting feedback allows the student to compare their understanding of a topic to the actual information. As Wendi Pillars wrote in Education Week (3 Ways to Use Testing as a Learning Tool), when students “retrieve a memory, it alters what they remember and changes how it is organized later in the mind because of multiple retrieval routes to the information are created. This is known as reconsolidation.”   Formative assessments, in the form of performance assessments, allow for better retrieval of information because they allow the student to practice retrieving and reformatting learned information with greater accuracy.

What would standardized testing be like if you included performance assessments? Imagine a student working through performance assessments as formative assessment in the classroom. It might look something like this: At the end of the unit, quarter, or term the student is given a similarly formatted simulation on a standardized exam. Because the student is familiar with this format, has learned how to retrieve information, and is engaged in the assessment, he tests in a lower-stress environment and can  retrieve key content information more easily, which might possibly increase his test scores.