Testing in TESOL Part 5: Positive Washback

By Joshua Yardley
January 17, 2012

Have you ever gone into a test feeling like you knew nothing, only to leave feeling like you knew it all? It’s common for learners to benefit from tests. This effect is called positive washback, and it has a few possible implications.

Tests help us to learn because they are typically challenging and often stressful events. Motivated learners pour lots of cognitive energy into retrieving information from their brains. The more energy we put into retrieving memories, the stronger those memories become. This is why it is easier to remember something that we struggled to learn than something that seemed easy to grasp. Those concepts that were clear from the onset will not be as salient to us over time as those that we broke a sweat trying to figure out.

So if we learn the most from tests and we want to maximize learning, it would make sense to test our ESL students more. Many teachers would probably baulk at this suggestion. Many probably think there is currently too much testing already taking place. We should consider then how we approach these tests. Rather than seeing a test as a measure of how well students retained newly learned material, we can see it as a form of review which is aimed at strengthening our students’ current knowledge. It is no secret that repetition helps to expand our depth of knowledge. Each time the English learner encounters the target language in the test, they acquire some new knowledge about that language.

Research has also shown that spacing content out over time in small chunks is more effective than learning information one subject at a time. In other words, rather than studying one point at a time and then administering a quiz on that point, ESL teachers should study several parallel points, integrating each point into our quizzes. As long as we are including various topics into our quizzes, we may as well mix them up when sequencing our questions. By putting our questions in random order, the students are never sure what type of question will come up next. By keeping them on their toes, we are again forcing them to work harder to retrieve information, strengthening that knowledge in the long run.

For more on test taking in the ESL classroom, see Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.