Research into Practice

Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 307-329

First online:

Teaching to the Test…or Testing to Teach: Exams Requiring Higher Order Thinking Skills Encourage Greater Conceptual Understanding

  • Jamie L. JensenAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Brigham Young University Email author 
  • , Mark A. McDanielAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Washington University
  • , Steven M. WoodardAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Brigham Young University
  • , Tyler A. KummerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Brigham Young University

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In order to test the effect of exam-question level on fostering student conceptual understanding, low-level and high-level quizzes and exams were administered in two sections of an introductory biology course. Each section was taught in a high-level inquiry based style but was assigned either low-level questions (memory oriented) on the quizzes and exams, or high-level questions (application, evaluation, and analysis) on the quizzes and exams for the entirety of the semester. A final exam consisting of 20 low-level and 21 high-level questions was given to both sections. We considered several theoretical perspectives based on testing effect, test expectancy, and transfer-appropriate processing literature as well as the theoretical underpinnings of Bloom’s taxonomy. Reasoning from these theoretical perspectives, we predicted that high-level exams would encourage not only deeper processing of the information by students in preparation for the exam but also better memory for the core information (learned in the service of preparing for high-level questions). Results confirmed this prediction, with students in the high-level exam condition demonstrating higher performance on both the low-level final-exam items and the high-level final exam items. This pattern suggests that students who are tested throughout the semester with high-level questions acquire deep conceptual understanding of the material and better memory for the course information, and lends support to the proposed hierarchical nature of Bloom’s taxonomy.


Assessment Bloom’s taxonomy Biology Testing effect Test expectancy