Teach to the Test

There is a lot of angst these days in the education field about “teaching to the test.” It started in K-12 but it’s crept into corporate speak as well. Some say that tests are no longer relevant. They are viewed as hold-overs of an out-of-touch education system. A growing bandwagon of people are saying that they want to help people learn to problem-solve and do critical thinking… and not just memorize facts.

In the corporate world, people really do need to recall facts to do their jobs well. There are plenty of times where being able to “Google it” is not enough: they need to know it if they want to perform their job efficiently and/or safely. In compliance and safety situations, we need some objective verification that they do know it before they are allowed to perform the job. This is needed both to satisfy OSHA regulations and as a way to protect the employee and business.

Case in Point

I sat on a materials review call for a course we are developing within the healthcare industry. This particular scenario asks quite a bit from the learner:

  1. They need to be able to recall the steps to performing a variety of tasks.
  2. They need to select the appropriate tools to do specifics jobs.
  3. They need to be able to correctly put on personal protective equipment (PPE) when entering spaces where high-risk infections are present.
  4. They need to know what protective equipment is required in specific situations, which means they need to recognize different signage located outside patient rooms.

The entire course concludes with a certification test. The test directly links to what this role needs to know…and know how to do. I was concerned to hear a materials reviewer push to add course content that was not going to be part of the test.  This reviewer said, “We need to go beyond teaching to the test.” The implication was that we would fail the learner if we only include content that will be on the test. In essence, we want to give them a smorgasbord of information and heighten their competency by doing so.

What's Wrong with the Test

What’s Wrong With The Test?

We act as if it is shameful if we “only” teach to a test, but why? I suspect many of us believe that we are dumbing things down if we do just focus on a test. Perhaps we are afraid that teaching to a test limits our ability to deliver a rich, meaningful experience that elevates the general abilities of the learner. Too often, we want to turn people into the experts that we are rather than arming them with basic proficiency to do their jobs well.

What’s the risk? If we mix nice-to-know and need-to-know content, learners will likely experience cognitive overload. Worse, we risk them remembering some of the irrelevant information at the expense of the most relevant information.*

What Does “Good” Look Like?

A good test should be an accurate assessment of the body of knowledge learners need to know to perform their jobs. If appropriate, it should also assess the skills people have or their decision-making ability when judgment is a component of executing the job. It should only assess the knowledge and skill required to do the job. Courses that are designed to teach steps, processes, and the “why’s” behind those steps and processes need to keep their focus laser-sharp. People can only remember so much.

If it is essential that workers recall a specific body of knowledge and apply that knowledge to the execution of a set of procedures and processes then, please, don’t include anything that is not essential to them.

The problem is not tests. The problem is bad tests. Bad tests contain irrelevant material. Bad tests are poorly worded. Bad tests are too easy or too hard. Bad tests are not comprehensive, covering all the knowledge and skills critical to a job or situation.

Please do teach to the test… But only if you want to verify that people gained the skill and knowledge you have defined as essential to successful performance of the job.

—-

*- Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, The Science of Instruction, New Jersey: Pfeiffer, 2011.

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