Have you ever had a student who seemed to know a lot but failed every test? The assessment format may have caused the student to perform poorly.

Although I studied test design in my graduate classes, it wasn’t until I had to help my own children that I really understood how assessment formats can affect student performance.

Teachers have to consider the unidentified needs of their students when selecting assessments. There are so many students today with undiagnosed learning issues that teachers need to make sure assessments are varied and accessible. 

For example, one easy formatting fix is to double space and enlarge the type on an assessment. It is a small change, but for students with dyslexia or vision processing issues, they make a world of difference.

However, the test format can affect students in other, less obvious ways. 

Recall VS Recognition

Different assessment formats require students to utilize various skills. In general, we can group formats into recall or recognition activities.

Recognition is considered easier because students only need to recognize a piece of information. Recall is harder because they need to retrieve a specific piece of information from their memory. For example, recognition is like remembering a face you have seen before, while recall is remembering that person’s name.

Examples of recognition activities are yes/no questions, true/false questions, and multiple choice. Some recall activities are fill-in-the-blank and open response questions.

How Memory Works

People remember information in pieces called chunks. We make connections between one chunk of information and other already known chunks. These connections make it easier for us to retrieve, or activate, information from our memory. 

For example, if I want to remember that Florida grows oranges, I might remember that my grandma lives in Florida and sends me a bag of oranges. I might also remember a commercial that showed orange groves in Florida. If someone asks me where oranges grow, I might think of my grandma, which helps me activate the chunk about oranges growing in Florida.

 Factors That Influence Memory

Three factors influence memory activation. One, as many teachers already know, is practice. The more a chunk of information has been practiced, the easier it is to retrieve it. 

Another is recency, or when the chunk was last used or retrieved. In general, the longer its been since the chunk has been used, the harder it is to activate.

The final factor is context. Context means what is present in the person’s attention when the chunk was stored in memory. This refers to the connections the person makes from other chunks to the one being stored. A strong association with a chunk can help someone activate it later. For example, if I studied my science unit with the radio on, a song that was played may help me retrieve the chunk. Strong smells can do the same thing.

Why Students May Struggle

Our brains can contain 4+ terabytes of information, but our working memory can only hold about 7 bits of information. In other words, a person can only hold a tiny amount of their knowledge in their working memory at any given time. 

Being able to activate memory chunks is critical. Students need to be able to connect information to other memory chunks, so they have more opportunities to retrieve them. For students who have difficulty moving information from short-term to long-term memory, the activation process may be difficult. 

A recognition activity is easier for people because it gives more cues to activate related information in memory. If you were asked, “Did William Shakespeare write Hamlet? “ you would have multiple cues to search for and find connections.

On the other hand, a recall activity requires people to go through two steps to activate chunks. The person first has to search their brain for the one cue and retrieve all related chunks. Next, they need to scan through all of the related chunks to determine which is correct. So, if you were asked, “Who wrote Hamlet?” the only cue you would have to search is Hamlet. This gives you a much smaller net to cast in your memory to find the correct information.

You might be thinking students just need to know some things. I agree. However, consider that if a student has no knowledge of a fact, they will never be able to recognize the correct answer. If a student with a processing issue can recognize the correct answer, then you know they have been studying. As they have more opportunities to practice, they will improve their ability to recall the information. Students with learning difficulties often need far more practice to reach the ability to recall information than other students.

Examples Of Formatting Struggles

I worked with a student with autism who was extremely bright, but assignments could take hours – and hours and hours. Not because they were difficult for him, but because he couldn’t get passed the assessment format. This student was OCD in addition to having autism. 

One of his homework assignments had fill in the blank statements with a word bank. Now, most students would go down the statements and fill in the ones they know first, then go back and do the others. He could not skip around. He started with the first word in the word bank, and then read every single statement until he found where the word went. Then he moved to the next word and so on. Once he was stuck, he could not move past the word. We had to place it somewhere to move on – which meant he had wrong answers and then got stuck later when he had to change it. After 3 hours, we stopped working. What might take another student 15 – 30 minutes literally took him hours.

My son has a vision processing issue, and he really struggles to move information into long-term memory and retrieve it. (This problem does not always show up in literature discussing his diagnosis, but from speaking with other parents and people with these issues or dyslexia, it appears to be a common problem.) 

In elementary school, we practiced spelling words every night. I tried every teaching strategy that my friends and I could remember, but nothing helped. We tried only practicing the words he missed, but every day he would miss different words. We tried grouping them into spelling patterns, and that didn’t help. Nothing helped. If he got a C on a spelling test, it was party-time. 

Finally, his teacher modified his tests to be multiple choice instead of just writing the word correctly. He got As. My son can recognize correct spelling, but he struggles to recall it. This same problem shows up in other classes with vocabulary and other word-related activities. 

What Can Teachers Do?

Teachers need to assess students’ mastery of skills. However, there are many things teachers can do to make sure that all students can demonstrate their actual level of mastery.

  1. Read students’ 504s and IEPs. Be sure to understand what the students need to be successful. I recommend speaking with students and their parents because you can get much more specific information than what is sometimes on a 504.
  2. Watch for a disconnect for what a student seems to know and their performance on assessments. Remember, many learning issues go undiagnosed. My son was doing 5th grade math in 3rd grade, yet his math score on the state test was barely on grade level. That was the red flag that made me dive deeper and find his learning issue.
  3. If a student consistently performs poorly, pull them aside (privately) and ask them questions orally. Some students will perform much better if they can explain what they know instead of having to write it down. 
  4. If they still struggle on an oral quiz, go ahead and ask them why they are having trouble. Older students especially can often tell you why they are having a hard time with assessments. Get to know them and figure out how to differentiate their assessments so they can demonstrate their level of mastery.
  5. Vary the types of assessments you use, as well as the question formats on each test. When I design units, I make sure there are both projects and tests. Some students will always struggle on tests but will go above and beyond on a project. On a test, I include multiple question styles – matching, fill in the blank with a word bank, multiple-choice, short-response, or a skill application like a map.

Look for red flags in your students’ performance. When do a student’s behavior and attitude not match their assessment performance? Why would that happen? Take the time to dive deeper, and you may find that your students know a lot more than it seems.

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Are Your Students Failing? It Might Be Your Assessment
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