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

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