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Teaching to Mastery Versus Teaching to the Test

Teaching to Mastery Versus Teaching to the Test

Why Should I Test My Students If I’m Teaching to Mastery?

What does the word “test” conjure up in your mind? Fear? Anxiety? Dread?  If we were doing aTeaching to mastery vs Teaching to test brainstorm session there would be mostly negative words on the board, no doubt.  Other than negativity, many homeschoolers don’t see the point to testing for another reason.  “Why bother testing if I’m teaching to mastery?” that is, teaching until your student knows the material well.  I want to make a case for the value of testing your students.  Testing will not thwart teaching to mastery, it will only enhance it.

Let’s define what I mean by ‘testing’ first.  For our purposes today we will save discussing standardized tests, required in some states, or scholastic aptitude tests for college entrance for another time.  The focus will be on the regular everyday assessment of what our children have learned at the end of several lessons, a chapter, or a project.

I spent years teaching my own two children and also being a part of or leading homeschool support groups.  Opportunities to discuss and encourage in the area of education and homeschooling abounded.  During these years and some that followed in a private Christian school, I found that no matter how well you teach to mastery, there is almost never enough review of the material, and unless you test it, you do not really know how well your students know it.

Testing will not thwart teaching to mastery, it will only enhance it. Click to Tweet

The Hawthorne Effect

My husband recently gave some credibility to my findings that I thought were only my personal unproved opinion.  He explained, “In the business world there is a maxim that states: ‘You can’t improve what you can’t measure.’ I became intrigued in the saying and did a little research. There is a great article by Todd Smith, entrepreneur and author of, “Little Things Matter” that explains this idea further. Here are a few highlights from it:

“It’s not a stretch to say that any team, organization, or person who wishes to perform better or accomplish more has meaningful points of measurement.  If they didn’t measure their performance, how would they know if they improved? Quite simply, what gets measured gets done. Think about it. The very nature of knowing that something is being monitored causes us to work harder and perform better. There’s actually proof of this—it’s called the Hawthorne Effect.”

teaching to mastery #2I found myself wanting to quote the entire article, so here is the link for you to read it in its entirety: .

Which Type of Testing Is Best?

Assessments can come in many forms, most often written. Typical tests can include short answers, essays, multiple-choice, fill in the blanks, labeling of pictures and diagrams, and solving problems. Oral assessments can be good and should be given, but they are better used for a continual review of learned concepts, rather than a formal measure of what was learned.

A popular form of testing for some homeschoolers is to discuss what your student has learned and have him or her tell you about it.  I caution you here: this is a great tool for reviewing what they know, but it is not a valid form of testing.  Charlotte Mason teaches this as a learning technique rather than a testing tool, and she calls it “narration.”( ) There can be a big difference between what your kids can tell you in a discussion and what they know in a formal written test.  If a student knows something when prompted by questions only a mom can ask, he or she probably does not really know the material well, even though he can go on and on about it.  

A Measurement of Success

In the elementary stage, grades are less important because they don’t follow a student into high school ortesting to mastery #3 college, but everyone likes to know how they are doing.  As your children get older it is necessary to test them because it is part of preparing them for the life ahead, a life without the parent or teacher leading their way. Unfortunately, our world isn’t yet ready to do away with tests to get a grade, be accepted to college, compete for scholarships, get hired for a job, or join the military.  

Prepare your kids for the world in which they are living, and understand that it’s not tests for the sake of tests.  It truly is for getting a measure of what they have learned. Tests can be used in many ways: for a sense of accomplishment, a measure of how well things are progressing, or an assessment of strengths and weaknesses of the student or of the curricula itself.  

We can’t get away from tests in one form or another.   They are an additional way we can prepare our children for a lifetime of learning. If you have been a staunch believer in not testing, consider slowly working in the concept with your students.  They will adjust, and you won’t be selling out; you will be enriching their learning experience. You will be making them better prepared for whatever is ahead of them in life. Making tests part of your homeschooling aids rather than hinders teaching to mastery.

photo credit: Projects Paper-based Prototyping and Functional Testing Part via photopin (license)

photo credit: 0011 – Sherpura School 19 Sept 2013 – Dev Testing via photopin (license)

photo credit: Elena e le lettere via photopin (license)

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About Pam Fink

Far from the rolling hills of PA where Pam grew up and went to college, she now resides in sunny southern Arizona with her husband. Pam used her Bachelor’s in Elementary and Special Education as a starting point to teach her children at home until they went off to pursue careers and families, and then she taught in other capacities. For over 25 years this diversely talented woman has tutored students and mentored teachers and parents in the areas of reading, spelling, writing, teaching with a classical bent, and home schooling in general.

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