Media lost on Breadth. They can still win on Depth, if they act like teachers.

Part I:  Media’s Crisis and The Way Forward

Media firms face a true existential crisis:  What is their purpose?  Why do they exist?

For about 150 years, Media businesses were the only way to get messages, both non-commercial (news) and commercial (ads), in front of large groups of specific people.  Media firms’ purpose centered upon the breadth of their reach to their audiences.

Today, the breadth contest is over:  Google and Facebook have won.  Together, these twin giants of tech and distributed content reach billions of people each day.  (By comparison, the largest legacy media firms command daily audiences in the mere tens of millions.)

Because they’ve won the battle for breadth, Facebook and Google have also won the battle for revenue growth.  Print advertising is being eaten by digital advertising.   While spending on digital advertising continues to climb, an oft-cited statistic is that Facebook and Google are capturing 90% of that spending growth, leaving media firms to fight over the table scraps.

In order to adapt, media firms have spent the last few years re-organizing, downsizing, or – in direst circumstances – selling themselves.  But in general, very few media firms have made a strategically sound bet:  Pursuing greater depth in their audience relationships.

By depth, I mean knowing someone very well – who they are, what they know, what they don’t know, what they need, and what they care about.  Knowing a person in depth is typically achieved only by a privileged few:  Family members, close friends, and teachers.

Think for a moment about how well teachers know us, and why:  They spend significant time interacting with us.  They gain our trust because we know they are there to help us.  And, of course, teachers ask us lots of questions.  In the process, they come to understand our strengths, our concerns, and our opportunities to grow and improve.

After we leave school, we continue to learn as we pursue our careers, and in the process we acquire new teachers:  Managers, colleagues, and leaders of the occasional class or training session we may attend.  But we have other post-graduation ‘teachers’ that are largely unacknowledged and under-appreciated:  The people who author and distribute information and guidance related to our jobs, our careers, our world, and our personal lives.  They’ve been around for about 150 years, and they’re called the Media.

With polls showing that mistrust of the media is higher than ever, weekly attacks from politicians, and cries of “fake news” filling the air, it’s easy to forget that the Media’s original purpose was to inform, guide and help us.  In other words, to teach us, after we’ve left formal schooling behind.

Trust in Media has eroded for many reasons, and rebuilding it will take sustained effort on many fronts.  But I’d argue that the way forward for Media firms must involve taking an active role as teachers of their audience members.  In doing so, Media firms can notch a double win:  They’ll regain audience trust by showing their concern.  At the same time, they’ll develop new business models based not upon showing ads, but rather upon asking their audience important questions, remembering the answers, and providing personalized, individualized guidance.

(coming soon:  Part II – How Media Should Teach)

 

5 Signs That Your Brand Is A Terrible Teacher

Back in school, we spent our days listening to teachers. Now—consciously or not—we spend our days listening to brands. Is your brand just like that boring, ineffective teacher you used to have (and couldn’t stand)? Here are 5 warning signs.

  1. Your Brand Lectures Endlessly.

When Hollywood shows a terrible teacher, they typically show him or her droning on and on while students zone out. (“Anyone? Anyone?”)  Everyone who’s made it past first grade knows first-hand that standing in front of students talking at them, day in and day out, bores them immensely.

That is what many brands do: they talk at people, with little regard for who’s interested, or why. They lecture the audience on features, benefits, or solutions.  It’s true that occasional lectures can help get the basic facts and explanations out there (case studies, concrete examples of how their product helped someone, are a better type of lecture). But like good teachers, brands need more than lectures in their toolkit. Brian Marcus, VP of Marketing at Evocalize, finds that when brands actively encourage their audience to participate and share stories, the resulting engagement levels can resemble those of the best small-group classes you took in school.

  1. Your Brand Tracks Attendance—and Little Else.

Imagine a classroom where the only thing the teacher paid attention to was attendance and participation. Did the student show up? Did he raise his hand? Great, give him an A!  While attendance is critical, and regular participation is encouraging, those are only starting points—true progress is measured in deeper ways.

Now think about what your brand tracks. Despite all the hype about Big Data, probably most of what you track is simply whether your audience showed up and participated. Did they show up at your website? Thanks to browser cookies, they’ll see your ads elsewhere for weeks to come (lucky them!) Did someone participate by Liking or Sharing your content? Your marketers are happy, but they haven’t learned much about her. So the question is: Amidst all this attendance and participation data you’re gathering, are you developing insights on your best customers? More from Brian:  “Data such as brand sentiment, brand influence, and customer interests should be overlaid on top of transactional data in order help a brand develop true insights about its beach-head customers.”

  1. Your Brand Doesn’t Answer Questions Clearly—If It Answers Them At All.

At some point during school, you asked a teacher a question and received an answer which only left you more confused. Or maybe you raised your hand with a burning question but were never called on. (So frustrating, right?)  Being able to ask questions and receive clear answers is essential to learning.

Recent corporate adoption of social tools like Twitter raised everyone’s expectations about being able to interact with brands. Many firms now employ Community Managers – but how many are trained or empowered to be effective? Stories of brands’ responsiveness to social media channels – such as United Breaks Guitars – seem to be fading into history. According to recent research by SproutSocial, 83% of important questions posed to brands by social media users go unanswered. Does your brand resemble that teacher who won’t call on students, despite their upraised hands?

  1. Your Brand Says Things Either Too Obvious or Too Confusing.

Imagine walking into 2nd grade and being told to read The Catcher In The Rye. You’d be confused, perhaps upset. Now, imagine walking into 10th grade and being assigned a book report on The Cat In The Hat. You might have some nostalgic, creative fun with that assignment the first time, but it would get old quickly. Even rookie teachers know not to give students material that’s either way too hard or way too easy.

Yet brands’ content is often pitched too high or too low, because striking a balance can be as difficult as teaching kids of multiple grade levels in the same classroom. Imagine if Ford’s Super Bowl ads for the F-150 pickup trucks said, “This can carry heavy loads.” Duh! That’s important in a pickup, but that message is Too Obvious.

Now imagine if Ford said “The F-150’s new fully boxed frame has eight crossmembers (five through-welded) and is made of up to 78 percent 70,000-psi high-strength steel, up from 23 percent in the 2014 F-150 frame.” Huh? That’s also important, but only a fraction of the audience wants that much detail. For the rest of us, that’s Too Confusing. Avoiding the Too Obvious/Too Confusing pitfalls mainly takes common sense – you don’t need Ford’s multi-billion-dollar marketing budget.

  1. Your Brand Never Asks People What They Know—Only How They Feel.

Back in school, feelings came second to knowledge and understanding. If you sat in class coughing violently, or weeping, or holding your gut and wincing, the teacher would probably ask, “How do you feel?” Perhaps your teacher wanted to hear what a book made you think or feel.

But generally in school, Subjective questions (about you, with no right or wrong answers) take a back seat to Objective questions (about the world, where answers are right or wrong, or at least some answers are better than others.) Answering Objective questions is how students learn about the world beyond themselves.

Today, in our interaction with brands, it’s the reverse—brands care chiefly about how we feel. They probably care more than we’d like. (“Please answer 15 questions about your recent experience of calling to update your mailing address.”)

Brands are using low-cost tools like SurveyMonkey and Qualtrix to pepper us with subjective questions about our feelings and perceptions. But as I pointed out in a January 2015 article in Entrepreneur, brands that aren’t quizzing their audiences on important Objective topics are missing a major opportunity to engage with and learn about them. You need to know what your audience knows, as well as how it feels.

To conclude: In 2015, Brand Reach requires Brand Teach.

(A shorter version of this article was first published on entrepreneur.com in March 2015.)

How ‘Soft Skills’ Tests Could Create Opportunity for Millions

Soft-Skills-University-Mockup

College degrees that impress employers are harder than ever to obtain and afford.  Could innovations in testing level the playing field?

Flashback to America in the late 1950’s:  A grandchild of immigrants, raised by working class parents, is bright and motivated.  He studies hard and earns good grades.  Despite his humble background, he scores well enough on the SAT exam to win acceptance to a prestigious college.  He earns his degree, climbs into the middle class and joins the ranks of those who’ve achieved the American Dream of being better off than their parents.

Different versions of that quietly heroic story have happened countless times—it’s a well-known tale.  What’s less-known is that there are two heroes in that story:  The young man, and the SAT.

I can hear you wondering, “The SAT???  How could any standardized test—much less the dreaded SAT—be a hero?”  Answer:  The SAT was a hero because it enabled the American Dream to take place millions of times over.  Let me explain that, and why it’s relevant today.

The SAT as 20th Century Hero?  Actually, yes.

Today, the SAT and ACT tests are taken by millions and loved by very few.  They are controversial because they’re seen by many to reflect cultural biases.  Students from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds tend to do better on college entrance exams, so the tests are widely viewed as tools of exclusion.  But they were designed to be the very opposite—they were intended to promote inclusion.

When standardized college entrance exams were pioneered in the early 1900’s, they were radical in two respects.  First, they were radical data tools.  Testing for college aptitude across a large population of students—quantifying academic merit—was a disruptive innovation a century ago.  Second, they were radical social tools.  Standardized tests were adopted by prestigious colleges to admit students from outside the social elites—they opened up access to millions of students.  Soon, young Roosevelts, Adamses, and other Establishment offspring began to share the footpaths of Harvard Yard with large numbers of the less well-heeled.

As often happens, the formerly-radical became mainstream.  For several decades after the end of World War II, tens of millions of US high school students took the SAT, and campuses sprouted everywhere to handle a 20-fold increase in college enrollments from students of all classes and backgrounds.  Widespread access to higher education was a social good in and of itself, but it also delivered a direct economic benefit—colleges began annually to graduate millions of skilled workers prepared to fill jobs created as the knowledge economy was born and grew.  The SAT was a hero because it expanded access to American higher education, and by extension, to the American Dream.

Today, We Need a New Hero

Fast-forward to today:  The American Dream isn’t what it used to be.  America’s upward mobility engine appears to be stalled.  Pundits gravely share data showing that the benefits of post-2008 recovery are being disproportionately enjoyed by “the one percent.”  An Economist cover story from January 2015 warns of the rise of ‘America’s New Aristocracy’.   That article makes compelling, evidence-based arguments that social mobility is in bad health, and that if it dies, America itself will decline rapidly.  Unusually, both Democrats and Republicans agree on this point (although they differ on how to fix the problem, naturally.)

So here’s a Big Question:  If the SAT powered the economic miracle that was the American 20th century, could another standardized test arise to play the role of economic hero in the 21st century?  I believe it could—and it’s called…

The Soft Skills Test

(Like Superman’s alias Clark Kent, don’t let the mild-mannered name fool you.  It’s powerful.  Let me explain.)

We’re in the early stages of the next disruptive innovation in testing, the broad adoption in the workforce of the Soft Skills Test.  Soft skills, a.k.a. people skills, comprise factors of personality such as Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These Five Factors contain within them dozens of specific orientations, behaviors, and skills such as attention to detail, personal organization, concern for others, tolerance of stress, etc.  After decades of psychological research, there is broad scientific consensus that these personality traits can be accurately measured by means of standardized tests.

Personality tests may still be viewed as mainly just for fun, or perhaps for sparking introspection and discussion among friends and colleagues.  But an increasing number of employers have begun to adopt standardized personality tests for the very serious purpose of employment screening—the Wall St. Journal cited estimates that employment-focused personality tests are a $500 million-plus market, growing 10-15% annually.

Why Soft Skills Tests are Heroes to Employers

Why are personality tests so popular with employers?  Because according to many surveys including this one, employers rank strong soft skills at the top of the list of attributes they seek in new hires.  Soft skills are no longer nice-to-haves—today, they’re need-to-haves.  IBM recently announced development of its own competency model for soft skills, to be used in hiring and developing its workforce.  Other large employers and professional associations are exploring them as well.  The logic is straightforward:  Now that so many ‘hard skills’ are provided (or at least assisted) by computers, employers can focus on workers’ ability to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate effectively, as well as deal with the stress of increasingly competitive markets.  In other words, paying attention to the soft skills of your workforce is more in vogue than ever.

Some of you are now asking, “So what if you can measure these soft skills—isn’t personality fixed, which means employees can’t really improve in these areas?”  For many years, it was dogma within academic psychology that personalities were more or less unchangeable.  But that view is rapidly shifting, according to Dr. Richard Roberts, VP and Chief Scientist for ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the measurement of soft skills.  “Personality is not set in plaster.  Meta-analytic data, which summarizes the results from numerous studies rather than single, one-off investigations, shows that personality can change significantly across an individual’s lifespan.”  (Disclosure:  After more than a decade in the assessment business, building product for firms like Kaplan and Princeton Review before founding CredSpark, I recently became an Advisor to ProExam.)

So if personality can change, the next question is, can a better personality be taught?  Again, the research shows that it can.  Columbia University’s Teachers College recently published a study reviewing the impact of Social and Emotional Learning programs.  The study found that such programs are not only effective, but they generate $17 in economic benefit for every $1 they cost to deliver—a return on investment which may exceed that of hard-skills training programs, according to Dr. Roberts.

Why Soft Skills Tests Could Be Heroes to Employees

The amount of US outstanding student loan debt is well over $1 trillion—in a job market that continues to test the resolve of young graduates.  Due in part to a flood of overseas applicants, it’s harder and harder to win acceptance to a prestigious US college that will impress employers.  (Remember that expansion of US higher education in the last century?  It’s now expanding by recruiting bright students from across the globe.)   So, American students are taking on more debt than ever, in an ever-harder struggle to win credentials that will enable them to get ahead in the workforce.  The same goes for those already in the workforce, competing for jobs and promotions against those with fancier degrees.

Which makes the following a $1 trillion question:  If employers value soft skills above all others, must someone attend a prestigious, highly-selective college to gain the personality traits employers most seek?  Or could he or she gain those soft skills at any college?  Or skip college entirely?

Anyone who’s ventured outside the small, rarified bubble of the meritocratic elite knows there are millions of very smart, hard-skilled and soft-skilled people in the workforce without fancy college degrees—or any college degree.  Just as the SAT opened college access to students of many backgrounds, could Soft Skills tests open career growth to a much broader range of people?  Could we see the rise of colleges and universities primarily focused on soft-skill education?  If the use of Soft Skills Tests becomes very widespread, could they prove heroic to those without elite credentials?  What do you think?

The Webinar is Dead. Long Live the Quiz.

New In 1998 Webinars -2

Marketers:  It’s time to ditch a marketing relic. Give your audience something far more engaging and powerful.

“Sign up for our free webinar!”

Do those six words make you feel excited? Intrigued? Doubtful. You probably feel some combination of bored, burdened and “Blech!” Why? Because like most people, you secretly never want to attend another webinar if you can possibly avoid it.

In 2015, it’s time to bid farewell to one of 1998’s greatest inventions: the Webinar. When webinars went mainstream in the early 2000’s, everyone loved them. “You mean you don’t have to be in a room with someone to hear and see their presentation live??? Amazing!!!”

Since then, we’ve ditched other turn-of-the-millennium technologies, such as Palm Pilots, MiniDiscs, and Rio MP3 players. Yet the webinar hangs on. Along with other defunct inventions, it’s time to replace the webinar with something better.

Why Webinars Need To Go.

Three C’s summarize why webinars are awful: canned, cluttered, controlling. Canned, as in they usually deliver generic information not specific to you. Unlike consuming a book or an article, you’re somehow more aware of a webinar feeling canned. Cluttered, as in you can’t help but notice every single “um” and “uh” from the presenter, as Justin Bariso recently pointed out. Since you are not in the room with the presenter, your brain has a harder time tuning out the speaker’s verbal filler, not to mention irrelevant questions from other participants.

Yet the controlling nature of webinars is their fatal flaw: Webinars hijack 30-60 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. Worse, you’re typically invited to attend them “live,” when they’re initially delivered, meaning you have to actually schedule your attendance and you can’t skim through the boring/irrelevant parts. If you’re busy, have ADHD, or you’re a true masochist, you can watch a webinar on replay. Although replay allows you to skim, a webinar on replay is as appealing as a plate of cold, soggy, leftover fries.

Several years ago, before content became hyper-targeted, collaboratively-filtered and consumable in three-minute chunks, we could tolerate the webinar’s shortcomings. According to Outsell, webinars in 2014 were a $5.6 billion business – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t upgrade to something far more user-friendly and enjoyable.

But upgrade to what? Let’s start by specifying webinars’ purpose. Webinars are promoted as gifts of invaluable guidance from benevolent souls. But in a marketing context, webinars are used in three ways: They’re used to build brand awareness, they’re used to capture Leads, or they’re used to build engagement. But is there a better way to achieve those goals? Indeed, there is. It’s called The Quiz.

The Webinar is dead. Long live the Quiz.

Think back to your high school days. Admit it — you spent a lot of time daydreaming, even in the more interesting classes. Why? Because your teachers spent large chunks of time standing in front of the classroom talking at you. During those times, you were merely a passive participant in your learning who was expected to sit still and sustain focus as content washed over you.

Now, what happened when the teacher announced that it was time to take a quiz? Your brain snapped into action! You quit passing notes, you sat up straight, your pulse quickened and you focused. You knew you were about to be challenged, and therefore you became both cognitively and emotionally engaged. You suddenly had become an active participant in your learning.

You’ve seen quizzes all over social media. Why? Online quizzes are what I call Cognitive Catnip; people engage with them at remarkably high rates, often spending several minutes in each quiz, then sharing with colleagues and friends. Quizzes fit the ‘on-your-own-time, bite-sized’ ethos of social media, and are thus very audience-friendly (unlike webinars.) Most quizzes are simply designed to generate clicks, pageviews and ad impressions but can do much more.

Quizzes: User-Friendly Sources of Terrific Audience Data.

Well-designed quizzes also gather unique data on your audience, matching data on “who they are” with data on “what they know”. When people have answered several questions about what they know on a particular topic, they usually don’t mind answering a few unscored survey questions in order to see their quiz results. Plus, because they’re inherently engaging, quizzes can generate much higher registration and opt-in rates than other forms of content.

In addition, quizzes that explain the right vs. wrong answers allow people to learn in a personalized, targeted way. Did you get question 5 wrong? If so, the quiz author has embedded a link to a great resource allowing you to learn more. This is why quizzes have become essential tools for establishing thought leadership. My own startup, CredSpark, helps experts, brands, and publishers leverage the extreme engagement of quizzes to generate leads, gather unique data, establish thought leadership, teach and grow their audiences. If you’re not already using quizzes in your marketing, you should certainly explore doing so.

R.I.P. Webinar. You had a good run. Now, class, it’s time for a Quiz.

(Note: Entrepreneur first published this. Reprinted here with permission.)

Generalists vs. Specialists: Who Owns The Future?

Broad vs Deep

Who’s more valuable to your organization:  Someone who can ‘wear multiple hats’ or someone who’s very talented at one thing?

How would you advise a student looking at college options:  Pursue a degree that exposed her to a range of disciplines and taught her to think critically in different contexts, or pursue a degree allowing her to leave university with a specialized set of knowledge and skills?

The answer to these questions always seems to be “it depends.”  Along with such eternal debates as Security vs. Liberty or Chocolate vs. Vanilla ice cream, the Specialist vs. Generalist debate seems to have no clear consensus.  Every month I read articles that weigh in on one side or the other, emphasizing the importance of being either a Specialist or a Generalist, depending upon the author’s point of view.

Two worthwhile contributions to this debate recently came from an Economist Special Report on the impact of technology on jobs, and an article in The Atlantic by Tamar Jacoby on the German apprenticeship system and what that might look like in the USA, if it could be transplanted at all.

Here’s my take on Generalists vs. Specialists:

Generalists will  find it harder and harder to get hired.  A friend and b-school classmate of mine put it succinctly a decade ago:  “Companies tend to hire Specialists, not Generalists, from outside the firm.”  That’s even more true today.  Much has been written on the rise of the freelance workforce, but less attention gets paid to the fact that the overwhelming number of freelancers are Specialists (programmers, designers, etc.)  These days, why buy a Specialist when you can rent one, ever-more-efficiently and cheaply?

A mainstream hiring approach today is ‘Let’s bring on an external Specialist to build/fix/launch/analyze this, and when the work’s done, either send them on their way or figure out a way to keep them longer-term.’ Recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed in huge numbers, yet companies report they can’t fill millions of open jobs due to a shortage of Specialist candidates.  In short, we’re facing a glut of Generalists.

Specialists are under threat from software and robots.  The Economist article compared the introduction of the first automobiles to the forthcoming introduction of ‘self-driving’ cars.  In the early 20th century, when cars and trucks replaced horse-drawn carriages, carriage drivers were able to switch from holding horses’ reins to holding a steering wheel.  The introduction of automobiles changed the driver’s job, but did not eliminate it.  But what will happen when the 21st century’s self-driving, software-controlled cars begin carrying passengers and cargo?  Answer:  Huge numbers of drivers will lose their jobs.  I’m certain that ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft won’t mind replacing their freelance drivers with self-driving cars, ferrying nighttime revelers home more cheaply and safely.  (Goodbye Designated Driver, Hello Designated Robot.)

Perhaps a few of you are thinking, “Being a driver isn’t a Specialist job.”  True, but I’ll bet you $5 you know a Specialist whose job was displaced or radically altered by technology in the past 5-10 years.  Finance?  Stockbrokers are being replaced by programmatic trading.  Law?  Software today can review documents faster and cheaper than paralegals and junior associates.  Healthcare?  Technology enables non-doctor specialists in developing countries to review x-rays faster and cheaper than doctors in the rich world.  Due to the quickening pace of innovation and the tech media’s favorite 10-letter word – disruption –  few Specialist jobs look safe in the long term.

Two types of people will own the future:  Generalizing-Specialists and Specializing-Generalists.  Imagine you hired a Specialist who was great at one particular function, and over time you found out he or she was also good at handling a broader range of duties, and eager to grow?  You’d be thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time.  Now imagine you had in your organization a Generalist who wore multiple hats and could handle a range of duties, but who also spent time acquiring greater proficiency in certain specific skills?  You’d be equally thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time.

Let’s call the first person above a Generalizing-Specialist, and the second person a Specializing-Generalist.  Each person starts out as one type, but realizes he or she needs to become the other type as well.  I’ve hired and managed each of these hybrid types, and if you’re lucky, so have you.  These people tend to be the MVP’s of their organizations – the people everyone deeply appreciates, no matter how junior or senior their roles.  Hopefully you’ll recommend them for promotions (although their shoes are hard to fill) and likely you’ll lose sleep over your fear that they’ll jump to another organization.

How did these people become MVP’s?  They made themselves that way.  Starting out as either ‘broad’ or a ‘deep’, they sought opportunities to learn more, either horizontally or vertically, and in so doing, increased their value significantly.

To conclude:  Rather than settling the Specialist vs. Generalist debate with the answer “it depends”, the better answer is:  “Since we need both types, each of us needs to be both types.”  In order to get hired and stay employable in the future, we’ll need to BOTH broaden AND deepen our skills.  Unfortunately, actually doing so is a bit harder than settling the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate by having one scoop of each in your sundae.

‘Test’ is NOT a four-letter word

Scantron test image

Your palms moisten with sweat.  You cast furtive glances at others around you, to confirm you’re not the only nervous one.  The clock tells you it’s almost ‘go’ time.  Your heartbeat rises in your chest as you try to squelch a voice inside your head saying, “This could be baaaad…”

Why is this happening?  Because you’re about to take an Important Test that will impact your entire future.

Been there?  Felt that?  I bet you have.  We each advance through school and our careers taking hundreds of tests along the way, with emotions typically ranging from boredom through anxiety to terror. Most tests aren’t that momentous; if we ‘blow’ a typical test, our futures will still be intact.  But other tests, such as school final exams, college entrance exams, professional certification and licensing exams–can be Very Big Deals.  You likely know someone whose educational trajectory was lowered, or whose career advance was delayed, as a result of blowing a test.  Tales of people we know blowing Important Tests haunt us like stories of car accidents.

But as was well-articulated recently in a New York Times piece entitled Why Tests Make Us Smarter, tests unfairly get a bad stigma in our minds and in society.  It’s time for us to start loving tests, for three reasons:

Tests are an essential part of learning.  The research cited by Henry Roediger, III in the NYT supports a large body of evidence that at all ages, across many different types of learning (formal schooling or self-directed learning, online or offline) testing helps the brain cement its understanding of material that’s been presented.  Basically, tests help subject matter ‘stick’ in our heads better than merely absorbing material and hoping we retain it.  There’s a reason that students’ timeless question of ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ is so familiar in educational settings – it’s because we understand that things being tested are things that matter, so we work harder at grasping them.

Tests can be interesting.  The word ‘test’ connotes a long, hard mental slog during which we struggle to maintain our focus, let alone to perform well.  Yet tests do not have to be that way. Thanks to the digitization of everything, tests are now being ‘chunked’ down in size and consumed like most other forms of online content (short web videos, individual .MP3’s), which reduces the effort required for our ever-shrinking attention spans.  In addition, well-constructed online tests can be more engaging online experiences than merely reading someone’s written word; your brain gets to volley ideas back and forth, vs. merely watching the pro.

Tests give you information you can’t get elsewhere – about yourself.  There’s a concept familiar to those in the education sector called formative assessment.  It refers to tests that are NOT used to judge someone’s mastery at the end of a course of study, nor to filter out low performers.  Rather, formative assessments are low-stakes tests used during a course of study, on a regular basis, to determine how well the learner is grasping the material as she is learning it.  They’re valuable not only to the teacher, who wants his students to learn effectively, but also to the learner, who benefits from the guidance along the way that formative assessments can uniquely provide.

Bad stigmas associated with near-universal experiences such as testing can take decades to change; I’ve merely added a single brick to a very large bridge to the future, in which testing may yet be viewed positively by people of all ages.  But hopefully I’ve made the case for making the word T-E-S-T a ‘four-letter word’ only in the literal sense, and not the figurative one.

What are your impressions of the the word ‘test’?  Do you think it carries a stigma?  Could we learn to love tests? – Lev Kaye

 Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.