Teachers should return tests to promote learning from mistakes

Test grades are out.” This was the text I’d been dreading since last week. I nervously opened the Schoology app to see how well I did. A 78% stared back at me.

The next day, I stumbled into class, wondering how I got a C on the test after thinking I aced it. It got worse when I got the test back because I was stumped by the first problem I got wrong. As I struggled to figure out what I did wrong, the teacher’s alarm let out a startling ring. It was time to return the tests (no pictures or writing down questions), and I only got through two of my errors. 

When I got home, I realized that first, I suck at solving pulley problems, and second, I don’t know how to improve in the class. There were specific questions on the test that involved multiple concepts, and while I understood the concepts individually, I couldn’t put them together. And without access to my test, I can’t learn from the mistakes I made.

While a test assesses your proficiency in a subject, the important part, where the learning happens, is after it’s graded. Harvard Business Education suggests that teachers “offer students the opportunity to self-correct their answers after the quiz rather than giving them immediate feedback.” And according to research by Vanderbilt, delayed feedback, thorough feedback given over time after an assignment is finished, translates to better retention and learning than the brief and immediate feedback I was given in class. 

Only when students are given time with tests to self-study can they see the mistakes they made, understand the types of errors they’re prone to and practice until they get the material down. When teachers don’t let students keep tests, students don’t get the opportunity to do thorough learning, defeating the larger purpose of testing. 

Why do teachers make students return tests? A lot of it has to do with them wanting to reuse tests, and allowing students to keep tests would invariably result in cheating in future years. This is why taking pictures of the test or writing down questions is not allowed; those pictures or questions could be given to siblings or friends who are taking the class in the future, leading to academic dishonesty.

But would it be that difficult for teachers to swap some numbers, change the questions to test slightly different topics or add different types of problems to tests? Most classes only have a few tests per semester, so changing up tests once every year can’t be that hard, and it’s worth it when you consider the difference it makes in learning for students to have access to these tests.

All teachers should give their tests back to students once they are graded so students can look through them as frequently as necessary to understand mistakes and retain information. The learning that happens after the test is just as important as the learning that leads up to it, and letting students keep their tests allows that to happen.