To Test or Not to Test: Assessment and Learning in Historical Education

By Andrew Nurse

Do midterms have any point? Do tests? Quizzes? Finals?

These questions outline the scope of a discussion that recently drew considerable discussion among historians on Twitter.[1] The conversation was both apt and timely. It is apt because it goes to the heart of teaching and learning; it is timely because Covid-19 — and a range of other factors — have encouraged a reconsideration of pedagogy.

“Back in the day” exams of various sorts were common. In fact, a range of disciplines still examine as a fundamental component of their pedagogy.

Why do they do this? Do such modes of evaluation serve a useful purpose in higher education?

The short answer to these questions depend on course objectives, the course level, the goals and purposes of the course, and a range of other factors. I am sure there are important and intricate distinctions between tests, exams, midterms, and the like.

I’d argue, though, that these distinctions are less important than pedagogical design and I’d like to try to use this blog post to address this question under the general rubric of testing. For the sake of argument, in history, a test tends to involve some kind of individually-oriented written assessment taken in class, or during a more formal examination period. They can, and do, take different forms. Testing can, of course, also be conducted online and some of my colleagues have also drawn from practices in language-based disciplines and introduced oral tests and exams. These practices can be an important part of teaching and learning.

It is important to note, though, that there is a downside to testing. If a test of any sort is taken in isolation – that is, if it is organized as a one-off assessment — it is not a particularly good tool of either student evaluation or learning. If the goal of testing is to assess what students have learnt and how their mastery of material compares to others, testing has drawbacks. It tends to privilege shorter-term memory and rote recall. Its ability to measure longer-term knowledge retention is far more limited. Higher weighted tests (say, midterms or finals that have high course weights) have another problem: they seem to encourage cheating.  On its surface, then, testing does not seem to have too much going for it.[2]

Yet, let’s not be too quick to dismiss testing altogether. For testing to become an effective part of teaching and learning, we need to make sure that it is part of the overall course pedagogy. If testing doesn’t work for your objectives, don’t use it. But, this question of alignment needs to be weighed seriously. Testing can be a really helpful tool in facilitating student learning.

Don’t think of a test as an evaluation. Rather, for testing to be effective, we need to think of it as part of our teaching strategy. To the greatest degree possible, tests should be embedded as part of a low stakes formative evaluation. In other words, the test should help students learn material and not just evaluate their knowledge. A well-designed test should be connected both to course work and other assessment and learning strategies.

In a course I team teach at Mount Allison, for instance, we have a concept test that is intended to encourage students to learn key concepts with which we are working. The items we test are often threshold concepts. Threshold concepts help students master other elements of their subject and, when well taught, alter their perceptions of the subjects under study. This might include class, gender, colonialism, state formation, or a range of others. The key is that threshold concepts are important for both the course and curriculum; their mastery helps students understand other aspects of the historian’s craft.

Understanding colonialism in the Canadian context, for example, helps students unlock a broad range of other acts, policies, events, and processes. It allows them to see, and think about, the Canadian narrative in a challenging and different way.

We all have threshold concepts even if we don’t call them that. We also draw on key events, processes, personalities, dates, and facts that we want our students to learn. If these concepts, dates, facts, etc., are important, why would we not have some mode of evaluation to at least indicate to students their importance?

A concept test can do more than just assess understanding of these core components of a course. Like all testing, the test itself will encourage some students to study.  But we should not leave our key concepts there, with the one test. Instead, we need to also integrate them into our courses from the beginning, signaling their importance to students right away.

I suspect most instructors do this, or something similar, already. If you don’t make extensive use of threshold concepts, begin with your key theoretical issues or the narratives with which you engage. Explain to students why they are important, why you have chosen them and are excited about them.

In addition to the test, I recommend to colleagues that they include other assignments that work with the same materials. For instance, you can include a reflective exercise (a learning journal entry, a discussion board post, an in-class or virtual “free write”) linked to the same material.


A reflective exercise is one where students are asked to consider what they have learnt and why that knowledge is important. This kind of exercise works with something called “prior knowledge activation.” As we learn new things, we tend to fit them into the framework of our existing knowledge. Reflective exercises encourage students to consider the character and nature of the new knowledge, skills, and competencies. This is useful if course materials are adding to knowledge. It is very useful if aspects of your teaching pose fundamental challenges to student preconceptions.  A reflective exercise should be positioned before a test (or, midterm) in order to assist the learning process.[3]

Tests can also be linked forward. Key terms or concepts should re-appear on later assignments, like a final exam. Don’t block material off, test on it, and then leave it be for the rest of the course.

The final exam, for example, might ask students to apply concepts they have learned, integrate important facts that have been considered in a course, or assess competing historiographic interpretations. An essay-oriented final exam, can ask students to pick up key concepts, explain and use them in response to historical problems or some other question.

In the case of Canadian colonialism, students could link the concept to the Indian Act, residential schools, the “peasant farming” policy, the law against the potlatch, or a range of other developments. The key is that the essay asks students to redevelop their understanding of the concept and deploy it in a more sustained way.

The final point to note is “testing effect.” One of the interesting conclusions drawn from studies of teaching and learning is that taking a test helps students learn material.  Put in different terms, tests are evaluations, but they can also be learning tools in and of themselves. Studies show that students learn from taking a test and that they also learn if a test is repeated. I admit that that might be awkward, but a pre-test or an online version can work to the same effect.

What does all this mean?

It means that in various forms tests can be an important part of learning, even if they may not work for you or your class. A course that is oriented to primary research or making apps or documentaries, among others, might have different objectives and testing might not be a good pedagogical fit. With a modicum of course re-organization, however, testing can be effectively used to promote learning. On those grounds I’d recommend it.

Andrew Nurse is the Purdy Crawford Professor of Teaching and Learning and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University. 

[1] Credit to Dr. Brian Gettler for starting this thread on midterm exams.

[2] James Lang, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2013).

[3] James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

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