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Wrong answer, try again.

How changing the way tests are given will lead to less stress, more learning and better schools.

“Most children speak and understand their mother tongue before the age of four without lessons, homework or much in the way of feedback. How do they accomplish this remarkable feat”? (from the movie, Still Alice)

Scientists are still trying to answer the question about language acquisition Alice asks.
But we do know that children do not learn language by being given tests before the age of four, or by being given a ‘grade’ or a ‘score’ on their babbling attempts at learning to speak.

Learning is done best when there is no coercion. But the routine tests that are given frequently in the classroom involve a form of coercion that is inimical to learning. When referring to tests I do not mean those such as SAT, GRE, MCAT, and other state and nationwide standardized tests but only the ‘regular’ tests given daily, weekly, etc.

It is counterproductive to think students should be able to get the correct answer after a brief introduction to what is often complex material. Learning for a baby is a wonderful and joyous thing, primarily because they haven’t been in the punishing environment of the classroom where the stress of taking tests eclipses true learning. Imagine if a baby exploring his or her environment was admonished for crawling or walking ‘incorrectly’ when learning to crawl or walk, or for babbling ‘incorrectly’ when learning to speak. If we punished babies with low scores for their clumsy attempts at language, not only would we have a world full of emotionally harmed people, but we also would have a world full of people not speaking very well. The fact is different students learn at different rates and in different ways. Making them feel bad (‘stupid’) with a low score is doing the exact opposite of what we say we are doing: helping them learn.

So rather than punish students with a lower score for not getting the right answer the first time, it is proposed that we will instead explain to them why their answer was wrong and then give them the very same question a second time. This is called learning from one’s mistakes.

This process of allowing students to learn more naturally will not only remove the biggest cause of stress in schools but it will also dramatically increase learning. This increased learning will be reflected in, among other things, increased test scores on standardized tests. This will reduce stress for teachers, too, because teachers are judged by the scores their students get on standardized tests.

There is one way to find out if this ‘wrong answer, try again’ method is superior to ‘wrong answer, you lose’: organize scientific trials, testing both methods and comparing them. Not only will subjective experiences of students be measured, what they actually learn will also be measured. If ‘wrong answer, try again’ is indeed superior, then it will also be reflected in higher scores on standardized tests—such as SAT, as well as those tests mandated under the No Student Left Behind Act.

These trials can also measure their stress levels, including stress hormones. These trials will demonstrate yet another terrible cost of the outdated method of ‘wrong answer, you lose’ because it will show how stress from tests is harming our children. Those not so good at test taking are left feeling helpless, stupid, resentful, depressed and angry. Some of these alienated students give up and drop out. Others just coast along, or become apathetic or withdrawn, or ‘dial back’ their level of effort. And some commit suicide because they didn’t get a good enough score. This has reached epidemic proportions in India. The official numbers are in the low thousands but the true figure is much higher, because many families don’t want the shame of people knowing a family member committed suicide.

The cost of stress to our nation is so great that its price is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost to the individual is measured in worry, disease, lower quality of life and early death.

Learning from ones mistakes has been at the heart of so much of the knowledge we have gained in science, arts, literature, and mathematics. What we will be telling students will be: ‘As long as you take the time to learn why you got the wrong answer, you will get a second chance at the question so you can learn from your mistake without being punished for it’.

The new way can include a feedback system whereby a wrong answer on a test generates a lesson teaching the concept, and then the very same question/problem—the one missed the first time—is given to the student again.

Even if not all students get all A’s under the new method, those students currently getting F’s, D’s and C’s will nevertheless see their scores improve, perhaps dramatically. Some parents won’t like the fact that there will be many more A students under the new system. Their objection can perhaps be overcome by offering to put a little gold star or other signifier next to their child’s A, which shows their child got their A without getting a second chance at any questions.

More learning, less stress, fewer stress-related illnesses, fewer disillusioned students, fewer dropouts, fewer suicides, better scores on standardized tests—all these things will come once the old unworthy ‘wrong answer, you lose’ paradigm is replaced with a method that has worked for thousands of years: learning from your mistakes without being punished for them.

Harrell Guy Graham

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