John Jensen: School Transformation from the Top Down

by John Jensen, PhD

Picture a state education administrator who wants to transform his state’s schools directly. A phone conversation might go like this:

Charlie (administrator): Hey John, how are you doing?

John: Pretty well. Can’t complain. Yourself?

Charlie: Give me a minute and I could find something to complain about, but I’m glad we could talk.

John: So tell me what you folks want to do.

Charlie: It’s the basic thing, increase learning across the board. I sent you our stats and you said you had a direct approach to suggest. Tell me about it.

John: I believe that a single policy, one request from the state level, can transform learning state-wide, but it depends on asking people to change something they do. Change in outcome depends on change in effort. Many districts continue doing basically what they do already and wonder why they don’t improve.

Charlie: I understand. It’s easy to get swallowed up with issues that are really out on the edge of the learning process.

John: If the focus people adopt doesn’t translate directly into altered student behavior, nothing changes. And if the behavior also doesn’t generate long-term learning, again little changes. Long-standing research has identified the activity linked best with permanence in learning.

Charlie: Instruction is delivered in lots of ways. What are you saying?

John: Could we divide the ways into two categories? First, initial practice obtains the knowledge, and later distributed practice holds onto it. You learn something, let it rest a while, bring it back up to mastery, let it rest awhile, bring it back to mastery, and so on. Teachers might object that they don’t have time to return to prior material, but good teachers find that prior material is much easier to refresh than to master at first, so that the time needed drops rapidly. But secondly, material learned well becomes a matrix to which subsequent learning readily attaches. New learning quickly finds a niche when the overall mental field is already stocked with well-mastered knowledge that offers many links of association.

Charlie: Wouldn’t it be complicated to have everyone returning constantly to previous material on top of moving ahead with new material?

John: If you want mastered, permanent knowledge, you at least ask for it and let teachers and students decide how best to use their time to accomplish it. Once we have a clearly identified objective, we can begin removing the obstacles. If you know what you want but you never ask for it, who’s to blame? One approach, however, could solve the problem cleanly. It involves a different way of using the tests you already administer to guarantee distributed practice.

Charlie: We have such a public argument already about testing that I’m wary about adding another reason to make it contentious.

John: Contention dissolves quickly when something really works. Isn’t the argument over testing about whether it actually helps or hurts? I suggest instead that we can use it in a way that stimulates distributed practice. Today’s design practically demands cramming followed by discard of one subject after another throughout the entire curriculum.

Charlie: How do we “guarantee” that? What do you mean?

John: Think about the logical response to the structure of learning. You delineate subject matter carefully and then schedule a test for it at a particular date and time. What’s the only reasonable response?

Charlie: You study that specific material right up to the time of the test.

John: Right. Inescapably you cram a limited array of knowledge. Then because a different subject is imminent or you just had a “final,” you drop the subject for as long as you can get away with. You set it up for students to do that. Isn’t that obvious?

Charlie: What could be an alternative?

John: If you want students to study over a longer period of time, tell them you’ll test them unannounced over a longer period of time. Behavior follows information. Stop scheduling the test. Say to them, “You might be tested on this material anytime in the month.” Hearing that, what do they do? They would probably bring the material up to mastery as quickly as possible, and then maintain it there with distributed practice so they are always ready.

Charlie: There could be scheduling challenges.

John: Here’s how to resolve them. Use all the section-level tests teachers create as they go along that essentially contain the entire curriculum. In other words, if students master these tests, they know the entire subject beginning to end. A given test might not even be very long, but instead something you could administer in fifteen minutes. A test doesn’t need to “cover” everything in order to stimulate study that does cover everything. To take up the least time, number each section-level test as you proceed through the semester, maybe thirty of them. Place the same quantity of numbered counters in a bowl. Every week, draw randomly the number for a test to administer all the way back to the start of the year—or from the prior year if you want–and also pick a day of the week drawing from a cup. When they walk into class that day, you say “Today we start with a brief exam on (e.g.) section 13, Chapter 2. Please put away your books.” Administer the test drawn and then proceed with the current lesson. Return the counter to its bowl, so it might come up again. They need to keep fresh in mind all the sections represented by the counters that could be selected.

Charlie: How would you assign grades?

John: Your goal is for all to master the material so they essentially obtain an “A.” As they are re-tested on a prior section, which occurs randomly due to your manner of selecting the test to administer, you use their last grade on each section to calculate their overall course grade. Because the tests they do take are a random sample of all the tests they could take, they provide a legitimate picture of students’ overall, permanent learning.

Charlie: It would surely give students a reason to do the distributed practice, and it should show that the state was serious about expecting learning in depth.

John: Do you notice any flaws?

Charlie: The hardest thing is convincing teachers to make a change. They’ve been “burnt” by so many new directions that didn’t live up to their hype.

John: I think like most people, teachers are ultimately moved by results. And if you ask a small change from them that obtains big results, they’re much more likely to buy in. You may want to offer a few seminars for them to absorb the plan, but they need no new skills. A very few changes carry out the steps.

Charlie: You’ve written about more ideas than just this one. How do they fit in?

John: If people decide they want to obtain permanent learning efficiently, there’s much more to say about how. But our starting point is to declare that that’s what we want. Everything else depends on a decision to structure learning activity so it achieves depth of knowledge.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at