Of Course I’m “Just Teaching to the Test”

Post by Doug Orr – Teaching Development Facilitator – Teaching Centre

A commonly voiced concern is that if students know what questions are on an assessment (assignment, quiz, test, exam) ahead of time, they will simply learn the content they are going to be assessed on. And, even worse, the instructor might simply teach them what they need to know to successfully complete the assessments. As horrific as this seems, let’s look at this idea from the perspective of course objectives, student outcomes, evidence of learning, and teaching and learning.

Consider …

  • What are your course objectives? What important knowledge, skills and understanding do you expect students to take away from your course?
  • What student outcomes derive from these objectives? How will students be expected to demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and understanding intrinsic to your course objectives?
  • What evidence will confirm students’ achievement of the outcomes which will demonstrate accomplishment of the course objectives?
  • What instructional activities and learning experiences will provide students with the skills and knowledge to produce this evidence?

What might instructional and assessment planning look like from this perspective? According to some theorists, students are able to demonstrate “deep” (rather than “surface”) understanding” of a subject when they can move beyond factual knowledge and skills (identifying, recalling, describing, calculating, etc) to relational and extended engagement (such as explaining, analysing, interpreting, applying, creating, criticizing, theorizing, generalizing, hypothesizing, and reflecting). Who teaches students these higher order attributes? Who shows students where and how they can demonstrate acquisition of these attributes?

One instructional construct suggests that an instructor could clearly explain to students exactly what knowledge, skills, and attributes they will be expected to demonstrate on specific assessments – based on the stated course objectives and learning outcomes for the course. Then one could structure instructional activities and experiences to explicitly and purposefully teach students the knowledge, skills, and attributes they need to successfully complete the course assessments (including tests and exams).

This would mean that an instructor would tell students what they were going to be required to do on an exam, and teach them how to do it. And students would clearly know what they were expected to learn and demonstrate on an exam, and then (hopefully) learn it and demonstrate it. That is – the course objectives would be met and the learning outcomes achieved.