Testing versus ‘On the Job’ – Theory versus Practice?

The University of Life

Recently I overheard someone on the phone loudly proclaiming that ‘on the job’ training is better than ‘all this testing nonsense’ because it allows people to go at their own pace. Of course makes intuitive sense to many people, especially those who gained a ‘BScliche’ at The University of Life.

For me, the theory informs the practice (and vice versa). I graduated from a University in an applied psychology department as a mature student (with plenty of prior life experience).Whenever we decide to come down on the side of testing or on the job training we lose half of the experience and advance a half-psychology.

Performance Improvement by Testing

Testing gets a bad reputation from in some quarters because it is seen as stressful and lacking ecological validity, that is, real-word relevance. One of the most common tests taking, even for those not academically inclined, is the mundane driving test. The stress mainly comes from not knowing what to expect. That’s why we have mock tests under near-test conditions. However the driving test is heavily reliant on practical abilities. The test sets objective standards that a learner needs to meet.

Critics of testing most often comment of the meaningfulness of the test and the unnecessary stress placed on the learning. Of course with school testing there is a political and financial dynamic which the learner shouldn’t be burdened with. The great benefit of testing, when done properly, is that it sets out, transparently, an objective standard. It also helps us to set goals that stretch us. Inevitably this involves a degree of stress. However, a little stress is good for improving performance. We often talk about a performance-enhancing adrenaline rush. The secret is to keep the stress within optimal limits.

So often it is not testing that it is the issue but how it is communicated and implemented and how it is related to the real-world. The key feature of testing is that it offers feedback. Research has shown that feedback improves performance irrespective of age. A little well-applied testing can give us that extra push.

On the Job Training

We learn most things by on-the-job training. Learning to talk, walk, swim and just about any other skill are from on-the-job training. We learn to how to interact with each other in the same way. A night on the town can be on-the-job training. However culturally there are many standards of conduct to which we adhere. We often use the phrase that ‘some people test us’. So ‘on-the-job’ training is rarely devoid of testing.

The main pitfalls of ‘on-the-job’ training are that it depends on the mentor, the feedback and the motivation. How well does the mentor give the appropriate feedback? is there a personality match between learner and mentor? Do their learning styles match? Perhaps most importantly, does learning ‘on the job’ mean that the learner just does what is necessary rather than pushing the limits?

Theory, Practice and Performance

I used the phrase ‘theory versus practice’ but testing and examination can be something that develops practice. Repetition and review are important factors when learning, however recall is improved by deeper levels of processing that testing offers. Conversely, ‘doing’ aids understanding. So, looking at learning from a holistic viewpoint, just as with the humble  driving test, we need a combination of both ‘on the job’ training as well as testing. Both are essential. The key is that each should inform the other in a way that is meaningful to the learner.