Friday, January 21, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: Testing Makes You Smarter

Suck it, haters:
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.
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.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
Dr. Kornell said that “even though in the short term it may seem like a waste of time,” retrieval practice appears to “make things stick in a way that may not be used in the classroom.

“It’s going to last for the rest of their schooling, and potentially for the rest of their lives.”
To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test [New York Times]

Long live rote memorization, long live testing!

The Korean emphasized the portion above because of its striking resonance with a point made in Waiting for Superman: Although American students are close to the bottom among industrialized countries in PISA test exams, they led the whole world in the self-assessment of their exam performance. In other words, American students did not really know anything, but thought they knew everything. This is what happens when education focuses too much on self-esteem and too little on actually learning something.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I don't know if testing really helped me retain knowledge, but I think it's simply logical that it does, because in order to answer a test question, you have to draw up learned information and reinforce it through repetition. And while I'm still not a champion of rote memorization, I'm definitely 100% on board with learning by memorization (using repetition of various forms as necessary).

  2. Your posts about education-related topics tend to rub me the wrong way, and I think the main reason for that is the condescending "lazy Westerners bad/hardworking, virtuous Asians good" tone in which they are couched. This is a shame, because I think you DO raise a lot of valid criticisms of the American educational system. For instance, I think we would both agree that the American school year needs to be a lot longer than the current 180 days. Great, but where do we get the money to do that when pretty much every state in the Union is running a massive budget deficit?

    Furthermore, you also ignore the examples of Western countries that DO excel in international measures of educational achievement. Usually, Finland is at the front of the pack of the PISA assessment. Canada typically fares pretty well, too. This suggests that the problems in the American educational system have more to do with aspects that are unique to the U.S. (massive social inequality, the need to incorporate large numbers of English-language learners into the classroom) than a larger deficiency of the "Western" educational model.

    Finally, you almost totally ignore the concerns that Koreans and other Asians have about their educational systems. For instance, a lot of economists here are deeply worried about the plummeting birthrate. But, can families really be expected to have more children when even one child's hagwon fees might eat up half of their disposable income?

    To conclude, I think you're taking a really complicated set of problems and providing a very simplistic set of solutions to them. Indeed, it sort of reminds me of some the more facile critiques of various aspects of Korean society that appear on some of English-language blogs about this country. Again, this is a shame, because I think you have a lot more to contribute to this discussion than a mere "Asian way good/Western way bad" dichotomy that you've presented so far.

  3. J.B.,

    Your point is very fair. Here is what the Korean has to say about them.

    1. Personally to me, there are only a few greater sin in life than being lazy and whiny. So when people complain about their children "working too hard," etc., I just flip out of my shit. If I come across condescending, that is probably why.

    2. I am not ignoring other Western countries -- I just don't know about them, and it would be pointless for me to talk about something I don't know. All I know is this method works, and I am recommending the method that works. I have no capacity to give a global overview on anything, nor do I have the capacity to measure how my suggestions will work in the overall picture. (e.g. state budget deficit.) Take this blog for what it is -- one guy's ideas for his country.

    3. The primary audience for this blog is Americans and other English speakers, not Koreans. In my private life, I am extremely critical of various aspects of Korea, including its educational system. (Remember, my family emigrated primarily so that my brother and I could get better education -- and I was already attending the best HS in Korea.) Of course when I am answering a question, I try to present as fair a picture as I can of Korea, pretty and ugly. But when I am expressing my own views, I like presenting what America could learn from Korea. America is my home, where my children will live. I am ultimately interested in seeing America succeed.

    4. I very much agree that I have only been giving a quick sketch of my points instead of really jumping in. I have been outlining a massive series on education for the last several months, and it is so hard to make its scope manageable. I know what I have been throwing out is simplistic. Just know that when the time permits, the nuances will come also. (It will be like the difference between the first Tiger Mom post and the second Tiger Mom post.)

  4. Unfortunately, the Korean does not know the whole truth and I am here to enlighten him:
    Americans from those districts that are well-off financially score the same or even above other leading nations. Americans from poor districts score much lower. Also, the study that the Korean praised so much is not a longitudinal study. If the Korean would bother to check the facts beyond one newspaper article, he would have found out that studying for the test promotes short-term memory learning. If the same students would take the same test three months later they would fail terribly.

  5. If you control for race, the American school system turns out to be one of the best in the world.

  6. There is a whole body of literature done using the scientific method published in well-respected journals that speak to the subject of rote-memorization versus and in conjunction with other forms of learning. It has been well-cited that rote memorization does not always lead to a deep understanding of material, and moreover, that most people who can move past this type of thinking and learning tend to be those who go on to get PhDs and do fundamental research in their fields. Also, people who tend to learn better from active learning styles and having the information presented in a way that is more contextual go on to become CEOs of companies for instance. Check out this article for instance on Engineering Education:

    As an engineer, I can attest to the fact that not all fields require rote memorization for success. In engineering, you can memorize all the formulas and concepts in the world, but if you don't know how to use the information, then you will not succeed. You success is based on your deep contextual understanding more so than your ability to absorb and then regurgitate. I think there is room for all types of learning styles in the classroom, but to say that rote memorization is your only path to success is very misleading and in some cases, very untrue. I think each person needs to understand their own style of learning (for instance, I'm a kinesthetic learner. I have to practice, manually, everything that I do. Not just to memorize, but to commit to muscle memory the way in which I have to solve a problem). But also, student needs to learn how to adapt their learning style to be successful in each class. In the end, it has to be a 50-50 effort from both sides.

    I understand that you are just providing another alternative to what you see as a deficiency in the American educational system. But I think the real deficiency is in parent involvement (which speaks to your other article about Tiger parenting). Parent involvement really plays a large role in the success or failure of a child in school regardless of how they learn. If the parent is involved enough to know what kind of learning style works for their child, then they will find the resources, time, whatever to invest in getting their child the help that they need. However, many American parents, unfortunately, are looking towards the government to parent for them and thus our children's educations are suffering.

    Ok, this is too long now, I have other ideas, that may be very tangential to this subject but may explain what you see as deficiencies in our system. But I think the problem is much bigger than just can our students memorize or not.

  7. v and jloveborg -- what does that prove? Do we only care about rich white kids in America? Or do other countries not have poverty?

    Bellanera, good points, but the Korean will deal with them in his education post. Like you said, the scope of the problem is bigger.

  8. v and jloveborg -- what does that prove? Do we only care about rich white kids in America? Or do other countries not have poverty?

    Did you read the linked analysis? The point is that American schools do a very good job of educating everybody regardless of race or socioeconomic status, including immigrants and other minorities who in most other countries perform much worse. The low rankings of America in such comparisons are due to the large number of such minorities in America compared to e.g. Europe or East Asia. Your "only rich white kids" comment bears no relationship to reality.

    J. "Loveborg"

  9. "The low rankings of America in such comparisons are due to the large number of such minorities in America compared to e.g. Europe or East Asia."

    So diversity makes you stupid? Wow, who knew, I'll make sure to warn my friends.

    That study is pretty much useless because it discounted every minority in America as a immigrant. Thats a very flawed approach. Many of these people come from families that have been in America for generations so how are still counted as immigrants?

  10. "If you control for race, the American school system turns out to be one of the best in the world."

    Race based inequality of eduction in America is not something to be proud of.

  11. I do think Test taking is very necessary for evaluating student's performance. I don't argue with rote memorization in that it leaves out critical factor of asking "Why!"

    Effective testing involves critical assessment of problems as well as forms of memorization. But tell that to the teacher's unions in USA???

  12. Dear Korean,

    I work in a DCPC school... I sincerley don't think you would applaud Rhee if you spent a day with us..

  13. It is more important to answer the critical question of "why?", but the time I spent using rote memorization I felt was more of an overhead expense needed to get to that question. The more I memorized the more time I could then spend on the critical questions. I didn't need to go back and look it up in the book or worse forget about it when I need it.

    As far as tests, I didn't really like them, but that was typically made them good. I didn't exactly like having that pressure, but it gave you a reason to spend time focusing on what was most important. Who likes being called for account? But in the end it help show you if what your doing was working or not.

  14. I read some article which tells that most experts agree on the importance of testing. The link is a Korean site.

    But the working mechanism of testing seems to be different from that of rote memorization. The author emphasises that our memory is making network in our brain, for this purpose, testing could be the best and the cheapest method.

    I think the Korean exaggerates the role of rote memorization. I feel that he emphasizes "hard working". If one has a good habit of self questioning, which works on the same principle of testing, then he or she is already a good learner.

  15. Even if you give self questioning and testing work using the same process, testing is probably going to be different. The pressure of testing should probably make a difference. Since the brain always gets way more information than it is going to be able to really deal with, it may ignore or keep in the foreground a lot of it. When your testing, it is going to put a lot more focus on what you think is critical to know. Also, if it increases alertness, it is going to increase emphasis on learning what is critical.

    Granted even if it is the "cheapest" way to go it may not be the optimal in a given situation. Each method may have its advantages and disadvantages, and as well as it benefits. It will also vary from person to person.

    With respect to rote memorization, it may take time for only so much benefit, but if you get out ahead and memorize things like terminology or dates of things, the critical questions will be able to be answered more cheaply. If your going to cram, it is more manageable if you got more things committed to memory.

  16. I really just want to say that Waiting for Superman is an incredibly biased, sensationalist, and simplistic look at a real problem.

  17. Dear Korean , here is a copy of the article Dr. Krashen sent to the Time Magazine. Please take it into account. Also, if you do not know who Dr. Krashen is, please check his background. I have attended numerous lectures by Dr. Krashen and consider him my educational god.

    "The Roar of the Tiger Mom" (Jan 31) reports that the US was "mired in
    the middle" in on the PISA examination, given to high school students
    in 60 countries, and that China will soon overcome the US in patent
    applications. Both statements deserve more comment.

    Middle-class American children attending well-funded schools outscore
    nearly all other countries on international tests. American children
    attending schools with less than 10% of students living in poverty
    averaged 551 on the PISA reading test, second in the world.

    Our overall scores are unspectacular (tied for 10th out of 60 on the
    PISA) because we have a high percentage of children living in poverty,
    over 20%. This is the highest among all industrialized countries. In
    contrast, child poverty in high-scoring Finland is less than 4%.

    Poverty means poor nutrition, substandard health care, environmental
    toxins, and little access to books; all of these factors have a strong
    negative impact on school success. The problem is poverty, not the
    quality of our schools.

    The US ranks third in the world in the number of patents for new
    inventions per capita, slightly behind Taiwan and Japan. In contrast,
    China ranks 50th.

    Stephen Krashen

  18. I definately think that test, as conducted in the US through quizes and chapter tests, definately helped me to retain certain knowledge. And I also strongly believe that learning is at least 85% memorization, usually through repetition, though I mean through repeated exposure through discussions and outside reading materials. I don't think The Korean is understanding (or remembering correctly) the seriousness of the four-times-a-year exams which for the some,usually higher ranking, schools or students in Korea is the difference between the "right" college and therefore a "right" job or no. We often don't have regular quizzes or tests. Do you want to suggest adding a couple more exams so that we have more shots of expresso to keep ourselves awake or the upshooting of anxiety and distress that follows every single one of these tests?

  19. Jeon94, we are talking about America here, and not Korea.

    v, Dr. Krashen, along with everyone who points out white, middle-class American students score well on international testing, has things backwards. America has always had vast income gap and racial gap. America’s educational system should have found a way long ago to raise the scores of the lower-class minority children who attend under-funded schools.

  20. Dear Korean, Rankings like the PISA are over-rated. to not question the validity of these rankings is an "accept everything as truth" attitude. While tests are good as 1 form of assessment, it is important to treat children as human beings, and not software programs that need to be tested over and over. You argue that Americans have focused too much on self-esteem in their education, and not enough . But isn't it true that many Koreans choose to move their kids from Korea to the US or Canada because the education system in Korea doesn't focus on self-esteem enough; that children there are treated like machines that need to be tested over and over, w/ a focus on memorization and not on critical thinking and creativity. And so they send their kids to America. Students from China (the rich ones), Korea, Singapore are all great at taking tests. Their education system prepared them to be great test-takers, but lack creativity and critical thinking abilities...So many come to the USA to develop and address their deficiencies (if parents can afford the tuition). Do you agree? (aren't you also a byproduct of the American education system?) I'm glad you are a lawyer and not head of a school district (for the children's sake).
    There's a reason why the wealthy class, including President Obama, want their kids attending schools where they are treated like human beings. Look at the schools where Davis Guggenheim & Pres. Obama's kids go to. America wants to push for more and more standardized testing in PUBLIC schools, but these same people would never send their kids to these dehumanizing schools.

  21. Indiana Fob,

    The biggest misconception about Korea's education system is that it somehow kills critical thought and creativity. It does not -- the Korean explained this in many different posts, so he will not explain again here. But many people, including Koreans, believe it to be the case. That's why they send their children to America, where supposedly it's creativity run wild although by any indication, American K-12 education is churning out subpar students.

    The Korean Parents did not buy that crap. They came to America for the right reason -- to send their children to American college, which is on average vastly superior to Korean colleges. And going to an American HS gives one the best chance to attend an American college.

  22. Schools in America are underfunded and every time there's a financial crisis the first thing they want to cut is spending on education (the second being welfare). I also don't like what I hear about schools having to do deals with businesses to get 'educational materials' that are little more than product advertising.

    In Korea I read that government spending as a percentage of GDP on public education is the lowest among developed countries; conversely, private spending on education per capita is the highest.

    This is all by way of making the point that differences in educational systems and styles are all very important, but let's not ignore the bottom line. If the American school system is turning out functional illiterates perhaps lack of funding has something to do with it. If the Korean system has problems perhaps a little more funding to, for example, get those class sizes down, would go a long way toward fixing it.

  23. Great.

    I just typed a long post on rote memorisation and lost it all. ****!!!

    What I wanted to say was rote memorisation is great as a tool for acquiring language, but sometimes it's used more as a crutch. Case in point: I'm an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) in Korea and often weaker candidates seize on key words in a question and launch into memorized responses. You can easily tell because they don't address the question directly and tend to repeat themselves when pressed for clarification. That won't fly in the real world, needless to say.

    Higher level candidates no doubt used rote memorisation to get there, but, if you're lower level or borderline, memorising responses is no substitute for real ability. And you really need to be trying to *engage*, to actually use that resource you have to communicate or you won't progress.

    I don't blame candidates at all for trying their best to get through an exam, but it just ain't the kind of exam where you can memorise a stock of answers and expect to pass. People who are serious about language learning aren't content with the ability to regurgitate responses; they don't rest until they *own* the words - a process The Korean described very well.

    So let's not forget if the term 'rote memorisation' is used disparagingly, it's for cases where words are parroted without real understanding. We need to memorise, sure, but it's not *enough*!

  24. open question for anybody: if you had a choice between the top high school in the U.S. or the top high school in Korea for your kid, which would you send your kid to? (please try to keep reasons limited to the topics raised in this post, i.e. teacher-centered, test-taking & rote memorization vs. student-centered/discovery methods)...Don't say you would choose U.S. because of English!


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