Sometimes I think I can be so bizarre in my educational views, or maybe it is just that I am unable to make choices– I love so many things about school.

I can have a hard time making tough choices when people present to me what they believe must be ideological or philosophical or pedagogical either/or options; instead I seek the both/and.

So here I go again.  Regular readers here know of my passion for PBL, project based learning, and I am so impressed and energized by what I see in PBL  in schools like High Tech High and New Tech Networks.   I think PBL is a dynamite way, essential even, for students to develop mastery in the 21st century skills which they so greatly need for their future success; I think PBL is the best way to incorporate technology into learning; I think PBL is the best way to engage students in meaningful, stimulating ways.

But I also love tests, which many of my fine colleagues find surprising.  I think a great test is a great mental event–  not just because a good test assesses students in order that we adults know better whether our students have learned what they need to or so that we have the data we need to improve learning.    I also love tests (good tests, not bad tests), because I think they can be extraordinary learning experiences for our students– that in the very course of preparing for and taking tests students learn enormously.

My own memories of school, beginning in middle school at Milton Academy when I first took “exams,” are of how my mind seemed to accelerate into an entirely higher level of mental activity and stimulation during a good test.  It was almost as if I had greater powers of perception and insight, making sense of things and making connections among ideas that had remained un-recognized until exam day.

The catch, of course, is that the test has to be a good test.

So today’s New York Times offers fascinating corroboration, in a piece called To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

I think that many students, those who are able to work on their tests without undue stress and who feel reasonably confident about their preparation, can go into a testing experience which challenges them to think harder, process more, and actually learn better as they proceed.

In my much loved video of students discussing the CWRA, one of my favorite sections is watching my trio enthusiastically explain how during the course of the CWRA test they actually learned new things– though in fairness they were doing so to praise the particular qualities of the CWRA at the expense of much other testing.

Critical, though, is that we work harder to test better; that our tests be designed to open minds and broaden thinking.  It is interesting and important to focus beyond the headline of this article to see exactly what it is which is described as a test.

The [most successful] group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

Why?  The key reasoning to why learning and remembering via testing is more effective is because is is harder, requiring more brain processing.   Learning by testing (in contrast to by note-taking or concept-mapping) also entails making more errors, and there is no better way to learn than to make mistakes.

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.  Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

This is not to let bad testing off the hook.  It has to get better in the thinking it stimulates and the technology it employs.   We need to use performance task techniques like we can find from the CWRA team at CLA in the classroom.   We should use open computer testing too, like Steve Taffee writes so well about and as is demonstrated in a terrific post this week by Shelley Blake Pollock (Teach paperless).

So even as we educational innovators lead our school to a greater utilization of PBL, let’s not dismiss or ignore the value of testing. Testing demands a thinking unlike many other learning tasks, and if we test well, our kids can learn better.   This is a great place for both/and thinking: let’s have students develop the thinking and problem solving skills they need both by PBL experiences and by rich, rigorous, tests.