Focus on Test Results Can Be Harmful to Student Learning

Children do better in their exams when their teachers focus on learning, rather than on test results, according to a detailed research survey just published by the Institute of Education at the University of London.

“A focus on learning can enhance performance, whereas a focus on performance alone can depress performance”, says Chris Watkins, Reader in Education, and author of a new paper which examined more than 100 classroom-based research studies.

The study shows that children who develop a “performance orientation” rather than a “learning orientation” tend to show greater helplessness, use less strategic thinking and be more focused on grade feedback. They are more likely to persevere with strategies that are not working.

When children think about what helps them learn, they do better in school, according to a range of international studies reviewed in the paper. Pupils show greater motivation, are better behaved and are more likely to be independent and strategic thinkers when teachers are not obsessed by grades.

In one study cited in the paper, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn.

Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students’ learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils’ exam results. A further study showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.

Government policy in England has increasingly pointed teachers in the opposite direction, encouraging them to concentrate on students’ results, writes Watkins. Ministers have placed teachers under so much pressure to ensure students perform well in national exams that they increasingly talk at their pupils, rather than talk to them and ask them open questions. Teachers have resorted to narrowing the curriculum and drilling pupils for tests and this has made the students less motivated.

The evidence suggests that the “goal climate” in classrooms becomes increasingly performance-oriented as students progress through secondary schools, and that this disadvantages the groups of children who have always struggled to achieve in school. A performance-oriented school culture is linked with poorer motivation and greater disengagement, leading to lower attainment. Watkins says:

…this could be a key element in explaining “the long tail of under-achievement” in secondary schooling in England.

Watkins says that schools have two challenges. One is to recognise that passing tests is not the goal of education, but a by-product of effective learning. The second is to recognise that even when we want pupils to do their best in tests, pressure and performance orientation will not achieve it.

He concludes:

If there’s one new thing we need in our school system right now, it’s a well-developed focus on learning. And if the coalition government is serious about its wish to close the gap between high performers and low performers then a focus on learning will make a significant contribution. Learning is for life, not for league tables.

Watkins, C. 2010. Learning, Performance and Improvement. Research Matters series No 34

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