Fail Forward: The Power of Failing a Test

In a new book by Benjamin Carey called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, he describes the paradox of why doing poorly on a test can actually help our learning.

It doesn’t take long in one’s school career to come to dread the test. Who has not cringed at the “Our unit test will be this Friday. Be sure to study your notes on chapters 4-6?”

So Thursday night you take a last look at your notes and feel pretty comfortable that you know them cold. Friday morning comes and you feel pretty good until you look at the first question. D! Final tests are even more frightening.

But what if on the first day of the class, Carey asks, you got a copy of the final exam itself. No answers. Just the questions. How would that help you learn while you took the class?

Carey describes how it would help you study more effectively:

You would read the questions carefully. You would know exactly what to focus on in your notes. Your ears would perk up anytime the teacher mentioned something relevant to a specific question. You would search the textbook for his discussion of each question. If you were thorough, you would have memorized the answer to every item before the course ended. (Carey, NYTimes, September 4, 2014)

But what if instead of getting a copy of the final exam, your teacher created a pre-test version of the final that you took on the first day of the class. You of course would do poorly on the test but you would have nearly the same benefits as having a copy of the final.

The pre-test becomes a way to make our learning active in the sense that a wrong answer to a question on the pre-test “wakes us up.” The question about the relationship between X and Y that you got wrong, sets your mind up to carefully follow the teacher’s explanation of that relationship during the class. It makes you ready to learn about it.

What makes you blank out when given questions about material you felt confident about has been described by learning scientists as the illusion of fluency. Just because you recognize a name or a topic doesn’t mean you are fluent; that is, able to express oneself easily and articulately about the name or topic.

Your experience on the pre-test has given you clues about what fluency in the topic will include and you will study so that you are actually fluent.

Mr. Carey cites the research of a psychology professor who gives her students in an introductory psychology course a comprehensive pre-test on the first day of class. Over several semesters, using a control group that does not do the pre-test, she found that the students who had the pre-test score about 10% better than the control group.

What prompted me to blog about the article was how the potential power of the pre-test makes us think about the general relationship between testing and learning.

Unfortunately, testing is thought of only as an end point in instruction: “what did you get on the test?” Not “what do you now understand that you didn’t before?” But what if we used testing more to help kids improve their learning, the “hour by hour” kind of formative testing advocated by Black and Wiliam?[1]

We already know how to use assessment to support learning: pre-tests, formative feedback, detailed written feedback on writing, calling on all kids for answers instead of calling on volunteers, and so forth. But we need to use what we know about assessment if we are truly serious about better instruction.


“Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing” –, September 6, 2014

Black, Paul and Dylan Wiliam (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.

[1] Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.


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