Tests have a bad reputation in education circles these days: They take time, the critics say, put students under pressure and, in the case of standardized testing, crowd out other educational priorities. But the truth is that, used properly, testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it.

Henry L. Roediger
How Tests Make Us Smarter
New York Times, Sunday Review, July 18, 2014

This is the first 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 the topic in greater detail.)

Your brain processes an enormous amount of information every second. All of the information is stored in short term memory. What causes a piece of information to be moved into long term, retrievable memory? It seems that the ability to remember comes down to situational learning and retrieval.

You remember more when the act of picking up and remembering information is connected to emotions. If you are engaged in an experience, the brain produces endorphins that cause your attention span and information uptake to increase dramatically. Neurochemists call this a “flow state.” In the 2015 video, The Neurochemistry of Flow States, Steve Kotler stated that, “…  Neurochemicals among their many other functions…one of them is to tag experiences.  Big neon sign saying really important, save for later….  It massively amplifies learning.” Most of us remember key dates like our wedding, birth of a child, or death of a loved one with great detail. It is during these times that emotions dump endorphins into the brain increasing your ability to remember what you are experiencing. Conversely, you have probably driven to a location so many times that the drive becomes automatic and you don’t really remember much of any single trip. You are more likely to remember your routine trip if it’s amplified by an emotional component, like a car pulling out in front of you.

Anyone who has watched someone play an online game knows that the interaction elicits an emotional response. You have probably marveled at how that person picked up controller commands so quickly and is able to multitask effortlessly. And even though the need to multitask and the rapid pace of play qualifies online games as potentially pressure-filled situations, few if any critics cite “being stressful” as a reason to avoid online games. Yet part of the criticism of testing is that it puts students under pressure.

We may never rid all students of all test anxiety. However, imagine a student who knows and can recall key content information on demand. And another who is so comfortable with the format of the exam that he’d view testing situations as he would any other class period. Then envision a student who rises to the pressure of testing with the same adaptability to which she reacts to the stress of playing an online game. These images can be a reality. And in future blogs, I will explore how game theory is situational and can play a significant role in learning, while expanding on testing and the connection between curriculum and assessment.