Teaching to the test vs. Teaching first, and then testing

Setting a definite goal and moving in a particular direction in the light of a pre-planned schedule and a set of procedures may work well in all spheres of life – but it may not be so in teaching and learning. Unlike other activities that we commonly engage in, teaching and learning require tons of flexible and spontaneous activities and experiences. While scheduling and procedures make up crucial components in the delivery of quality education, they should not dictate and dominate the progress and processes of teaching and learning in the classroom.


Since the school system stemmed from a necessity to fill the need of industrialization (producing workers to fit into various job-descriptions), one the most widespread teaching practices that was and is still prevalent is TEACHING TO THE TEST. Teaching to the test means teaching (covering content/syllabus) a particular subject in preparation for a forthcoming test. When a teacher teaches to a test, everything he/she does in the classroom is geared toward accomplishing the goal of getting learners ready for that test. The ultimate purpose for everything that happens in such a classroom is to make sure that students are equipped with enough knowledge and/or skills to successfully face and deal with the questions in the test.However, there are many problems with this approach, some of which are enumerated as follows:

  • Rigidity in instruction and learning
  • Lack of time and opportunities for explorative activities
  • Knowledge is ‘passed down’ instead of ‘discovered’
  • Test anxiety
  • Death of creativity
  • Pressure to cover course contents – other more important aspects of learning, like social-emotional learning, relationships-building, character-building, etc., are neglected
  • Quality compromised for the sake of quantity
  • Lack of meaningful teaching-learning experiences (while learning should be structured, students benefit the most when certain amount of flexibility and spontaneity are injected in the process of acquiring knowledge and skills)
  • Lack of fun in the learning process (negative emotions significantly obstruct meaningful learning)
  • Inability to experiment with different answers and approaches
  • Demotivation & lack of interest
  • etc.

An alternative to this ineffective and dated approach is the TEACHING FIRST, AND THEN TESTING approach. This approach does not compromise or do away with the application of structured instruction. However, within every structured learning program, a teacher infuses a variety of creative, constructive, stimulating, engaging, and exciting activities that inspire learners to actively create their own knowledge, form, extend, and use concepts, and evaluate their understanding of a particular knowledge/skill. Because the pressure for content coverage and test anxiety are eliminated, both the teacher and students are encouraged to explore, inquire, analyze, and examine every lesson extensively. This provides an opportunity for students to gain meaningful learning experiences. It also allows them to become creative and critical about everything that is discussed in the classroom. They no longer act as ‘mere reflectors of other people’s ideas’ – rather, they become ‘idea creators’ themselves. Application of knowledge to real-life settings is at its peak in this kind of learning environment.

Teachers who utilize this approach realize the importance of flexible and spontaneous classroom practices to elicit maximum participation in students while learning. Students’ needs are constantly assessed and content coverage greatly depends on interest, desires, and aspirations of students (as opposed to what curriculum designers or the education superintendents feel/think students need at a particular time). This makes sense because it is the teacher who is directly in touch with his/her students; it is the teacher who knows his/her students well. This implies that it is the teacher who has the inherent right and privilege to decide what should be taught and how and when it should be taught. Having that established, it also makes a lot of sense to allow the teacher to decide, along with his/her students as to what testing should and should not encompass (and how it should and should not be, which give way to a more creative and practice-based assessment and evaluation techniques).

When learning takes place in a classroom that is characterized by teaching to the test, students find it difficult to establish meaning and purpose for learning the contents of a particular subject. However, when teachers teach first, and then test, students are passionate about what they are learning, and they enjoy tests.

How long do we want to follow the same old practice of teaching to the test merely because it has been in operation from time immemorial? How long should we focus on teaching our learners a set of knowledge so that they can do well in a pre-determined set of questions in a test paper? Shouldn’t we start thinking about teaching our students how to create their own knowledge? Isn’t it time for us to consider testing students on their own ideas and inventions – challenging them to justify their concepts and understanding through explanations and dialogues?

The greatest advantage of the teaching first, and then testing approach is that students acquire lessons in living balanced and healthy lifestyles. In other words, the social-emotional aspects of a learner are cared for in the process of learning. This is not a possibility in the teaching to the test approach because the teacher and students are focused completely on doing well in the test. Both would do whatever it takes to reach that end (even if it is without any meaning). This is the reason why more and more ‘educated’ people are involved in crime and socially unacceptable behaviors. While they do well in tests, their characters are not developed. They simply didn’t have the time for both academic and social-emotional learning in the classroom. Feelings are neglected and relationships are injured in the teaching to the test approach. The end product of this approach is intelligent humans without bodies and hearts that would support a purposeful existence. That’s why many ‘good students’ in the old school tremble and fail in the face of trials and difficulties in life. They don’t have what it takes to be ‘bullish’.


On the other hand, students who are taught first, and then tested, become proud citizens who cherish their purposeful lives, and steadily create opportunities to excel while working toward improving the lives of others around them through creative innovations and constructive contributions in the form of ideas, products, and quality relationships. In other words, they become blessings to themselves and others around them.

Copyright by Edward Roy Krishnan, PhD
April 12, 2007

Relevant and Meaningful Learning (A Note of Appreciation to my Cross-Cultural Psychology Class)

One of the greatest challenges that every teacher faces is the challenge of planning out a course for a whole year or semester through. A lot of things are planned based on the assumption that everything will go well and nothing will interrupt the existing plan. However, since we are not in control of many external factors (plus we have to consider the fact that each student is affected by a variety of different external factors that might help or interfere in the process of learning), most often, the plan is jeopardized. This becomes even more complicated when one teaches a new course.

I was in this predicament when I began my current semester (the semester is almost ending…just a few more weeks to go!). I was assigned to teach a new course, entitled Cross-cultural Psychology. When I reviewed the course outlines of all the previous teachers, I realized that they taught to the course based on a textbook from the US (most of our textbooks are from the US because we have limited literature in the area of psychology written by Asian authors and scholars). The book contains a few introductory chapters on the meaning of culture, cross-cultural psychology, multi-cultural psychology, etc. It also elucidates factors that are related to the cultural experiences of humans and how culture interacts with other social-emotional-psychological experiences. The first few chapters of the book give readers an overview of the subject matter. However, the book goes on into the specific cultural groups and ethnic minorities in the US. So, except for the first four chapters in the beginning, the rest of the book has very little relevance and connection with the type of students I would have in my class.

I thought hard about this and wanted to make sure that I don’t introduce and entertain anything that is NOT meaningful and relevant to the students. Learning is frustrating when the material to be learned and mastered is something devoid of meaning and relevance to one’s own life (I experienced this when I was in both the elementary and high school and I know how annoying it is). Because I wanted to make sure that students do not get frustrated with the kind of materials used for learning, I decided to use only the four first chapters of the book (which can be covered in four weeks; there are 9 more weeks left in a semester!).

The problem now is what do I do for the remainder time of the semester? Well, spending time thinking about this problem helped me to come up with a very creative plan (everyone is creative; they just need to spend time thinking!). I decided that I would divide the class into different cultural groups and have them present their own cultures as part of their requirements. This way, they get their points that will eventually make up their grades, and we as a class, get to learn something meaningful and relevant!


The groups consisted of all the cultures represented by the students in the class (Karen, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, the Dayaks (Borneo Island), American & Canadian, Japanese, and African). Apart from presenting their own cultures in the class, I also required the students to stage a cultural program showcasing an unique item that will proudly celebrate an aspect of each of their cultures (students came with the theme “Wonders of the World” for the show). It was open to the whole college and it was their final exam (instead of paper and pencil exam, I chose the performance-based assessment). We all worked together and the program was a success!
So, the lessons that I want us to learn from this experience is summarized as follows:

  1. Although textbooks help us as framework for classes, let us not be rigid in using the knowledge presented in them. Tailor-make the lesson to suit your own class depending on the nature and needs of your student group.
  2. Inject your own creativity into teaching. Don’t rely on what was already done before or on what is the ‘standard practice’. Be different in what you do as a teacher. This will communicate the need to ‘think out of the box’ to your students too!
  3. Make sure that everything that takes place in the classroom (whether big or small, whether an exam or instruction, whether individual or group work, etc.) is RELEVANT AND MEANINGFUL for the learners.
  4. Put yourself in the learners’ shoes and ask if you will enjoy the kind of learning materials being presented in the class.
  5. When you know something doesn’t smell right, don’t hesitate to identify and remove it. Students appreciate teachers who admit mistakes and are willing to change for the good. Students treasure teachers who remember that they are ‘humans’, just like their students. Students admire teachers who accept their ‘humanness’ and celebrate it in their teaching.
  6. Empower, encourage, and be support! Stand alongside with your students. Be there to guide them. But never spoon feed them! Keep telling them that they are CAPABLE of doing great things! (I played the role of a motivator in the process of preparing for the big cultural show…and eventually, students became internally motivated to give their best. Each item was a success).
  7. Be proud of your students and their accomplishments. Tell them that you are proud of them. They deserve to know that they are valuable in your eyes.

Self-image: Implication for Teaching

I think it is important for teachers to take into account the development of the ‘self’ while teaching. This is different from ‘self-esteem’ though because there are many debates about the latter. However, the development of self (the image we form of ourselves, also known as self-image or self-concept) is strongly and positively related to the type of self-esteem one holds at a particular time.

My approach in developing the ‘self’ is embedded in the type of learning experienced by students in the classroom. I have realized through my observation and research (of children across settings, age level, and abilities) that humans develop a positive image of themselves as they gain control over themselves and their external environment (both social and physical). What do I mean? The more I can DO things (master skills or knowledge)…the more confidence I gain about my ability to be able to have or gain control over myself (functionally) and my environment (increase in self-efficacy). When I cannot DO the things that most people do well, I start looking down on my ‘self’, my abilities, and my existence. Hence, a teacher should focus on creating opportunities in which a student masters a particular knowledge or skill and move ahead with a more challenging skill or knowledge. This requires cognitive scaffolding and working together with the individual student. Confidence in mastering smaller tasks will enable the individual to undertake bigger tasks and the SUCCESS from one task to another serves as an internal motivating factor.

If I say I have a high level of self-esteem, I am actually telling you that that I am in control of myself and my surrounding (ability to do things)! This is also why many research find a strong positive connection between self-esteem and academic achievement.