The Value of Spontaneous Testing




In a recorded lecture by Aldous Huxley on ‘Knowledge and Understanding,’ he makes a clear distinction between the two words.  He asserts:

Knowledge is when we explain the ‘unknown’ in terms of the known. When we succeed in fitting a new experience into our system of concepts and ideas


 ‘Understanding is the direct and unmediated contact with reality as it experienced moment by moment.’

He continues that Knowledge is an awareness of the ‘old’ and it can almost always be communicated.  It is a set of notions and ideas which we have been fabricated to believe or conditioned to believe, as well as facts that have been previously confirmed to contain an agreed ‘truth.’  Therefore, knowledge also becomes something we can pass on when we use the correct words or symbols.  He furthers to assert that one can never interact with knowledge in the present. For example, even if I believe ‘right now I feel tired’ it is an assertion made through a retrospective and reflective awareness.

However, according to Huxley, Understanding is vastly different.  It relies largely on immediate and direct experience.  As a result, Huxley asserts that we ‘cannot pass on understanding.’  This is because understanding requires a certain level of improvisation; a moment to manipulate information and knowledge in a new, appropriate context.

Let’s give a simple example (one used about behaviour at last year’s Edfest).  When teaching a small child the word ‘thank you,’ you may expect them to use it every time you pass an item to them.  At this level, a small child may recognise that using the words ‘thank you’ will achieve their aim: to get an item from you.  However, the perplexity, generosity and meaning behind the word may not yet be communicated.  In a different context, they may be hesitant to repeat the word ‘thank you’ or understand why it is used – such as if a stranger was to hold the door open for them – or if used sarcastically when someone fails to do something.

Unfortunately, Knowledge and Understanding can sometimes be used synonymously. Indeed, Huxley recognises this and alerts us to the fact that:

The mistake of imagining that knowledge is understanding is terribly common.

Testing Knowledge then Understanding

To recognise Knowledge and Understanding as divergent (yet related) concepts is something I had admittedly never considered.   I am an unashamed advocate for teaching students knowledge, and the importance of the ‘knowledge pre-requisite’ (as Lemov labels it).  The knowledge required for me to teach is usually split into 3 forms: textual-knowledge, research-knowledge and curriculum-knowledge.

More than ever, there are articles about the importance of testing knowledge for retainment, and many teachers have been outstanding in their selfless distribution of resources that assist with this.   Some of these include the bank of Knowledge Organisers published here (with link to Theobold’s (@JamesTheo) outstanding original document), and numerous multiple choice quizzes circulating on the twittersphere.

Unfortunately, however, testing or ‘checking’ for Understanding seems to have been hijacked by the pedagogy tick-box committee some time ago and saw its way into education in the following ways:

53 ways understanding


In fact, when I searched for ways to ‘check for understanding,’ I realised that most – if not all – of the approaches given to achieve this purpose were actually methods of checking for knowledge – or, worst still, that it solely required a subjective assertion that the student ‘understood’ by a ‘thumbs up’


(Side note: “I still have a lot of questions” with a ‘thumbs down’ does not seem to be the right message when we are encouraging our students to be inquisitive thinkers…)

So how do you test Understanding?  If we take Huxley’s argument that understanding is something that requires a sense of immediacy and improvisation, the only way to ensure that students can transfer or appropriate their knowledge is through an unseen examination with developed questions.  The ability to recognise what information (and knowledge) is required to most effectively react to the new situation will signpost whether students have a tangible grasp of the concepts taught.

This idea was explored by Jensen et al. in their academic paper: Teaching to the Test… or Testing to Teach: Exams Requiring Higher Order Thinking Skills Encourage Greater Conceptual Understanding (2014), where they found that:

 Higher-order assessments may be a key factor in stimulating students to effectively acquire a deep understanding of the material, an understanding that supports, not only application, analysis and evaluation, but also better retention of the core facts.

 (Side Note 2: Whilst I am aware this article still considers the impact of Bloom’s, the reason that Bloom’s has been critiqued is due to its inability to stress knowledge.  Similar to this argument, I am putting forward that Understanding can only occur once a solid grasp and testing of knowledge has taken place)

However, most importantly, as put forward by Jensen et al., there seemed to be a direct correlation between a student’s ability to evaluate and manipulate information when students were (randomly) tested with higher-order questions.

This idea is similarly explored in the article ‘Testing Enhances the Transfer of Learning’ where the aim of the article is to explore testing beyond knowledge recollection; that is to say, testing on Understanding rather than simply Knowledge.  Carpe (2013) addresses that most research on the testing effect has been limited to, and measured by, information retention – this drives her aim to explore its impact further.

What she found was that a growing number of studies identified that robust testing assists with knowledge transfer (or, Understanding), and gives a brilliant example by Butler where the testing question was:

 There are about 5,500 species of mammals in the world. Approximately what percentage of all mammal species are species of bat?

 Now, the knowledge that students were taught was simply: there are 1000 species of bat.  As you can see, to adequately answer the question above, they would need to not only recall their knowledge of the fact, but transfer it into the unseen question, thus showing Understanding and assisting the process of knowledge transference.

More Testing, More Marking?

 It is vital to note that this does not have to generate more work for you.  I need only cite the information on tips and tricks in Carl Hendrick’s and Robin Macpherson’s outstanding publication: What Does it Look Like in the Classroom? to identify the importance of feedback over marking.  But you can also read from Carl’s Guardian publication Teachers: Your Guide to Strategies that Really Work.

So… What does This Look Like in the Classroom?

I have been exploring this over the past couple of months and using it, when effective, to inform my teaching.  I have made a few key changes to my classroom when I feel it is vital to evaluate my students’ Understanding (aka test their knowledge in an improvised and immediate environment).  Here are 3 quick strategies that might be useful:

·      1-2-1 Discussions about Texts

In an immediate conversation, students cannot hide behind stating knowledge that entices me into believing that they have understood. Asking immediate questions about a text challenges their recall and also forces them to apply information to different contexts.  I have even asked them in a festival jest: ‘How does Hamlet relate to Wham’s Last Christmas?’ Hint:

§   ‘I gave you my heart / you gave it away’

§  ‘A man undercover’

§  ‘Tell me baby, do you recognise me?’

·      ‘Sticks’ Essay Approach

Remember the game sticks? You would have to take away a piece every time it was your turn? Imagine that in essay form.  I have been asking students to use information from one essay (let’s say ‘Conflict’ in Hamlet) and try to manipulate it into another theme (such as ‘Power in Hamlet’) mostly using the information from their first essay.

·      Trick Theme Essay

Finally, the most cruel.  Telling students that their essay on Friday will be 1 of 5 themes, and giving them an entirely unseen question.  Forcing them to make most of the knowledge they have planned in an unexpected situation.

x = 2

I will end this blog on what Huxley calls the ‘paradox of our existence.’  He claims:

 We need ‘experience’ (knowledge) in order to do the practical affairs of life but in regard to what may be called ‘understanding’  – the immediate contact with reality – ‘experience’ is very often a handicap. We have to circumvent it.

In the same way that perpetually signposting to my students ‘what themes might come up’ in their practice papers might give me – and them – a false idea of their Understanding.


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