Pedagogically, online test preparation has evolved from B.F. Skinner’s research on operant conditioning, which asserts that every learner can master a skill given sufficient repetition and feedback. Motivation to stay on an educational task is generated through the use of positive feedback such as messages that express approval of correct responses to test or practice items. In the best test preparation software, not only are such positive messages embedded in the practice segments, but gaming modules are also of­fered as incentives to perform according to standards.

Today’s students are often more technologically proficient than their teachers and eager to use games as motivation in education. Although some educators have reservations about integrating computer games into the curriculum, the 2005 National Summit on Educational Games offered a rationale for incorporating digital games into the learning process.

Games offer attributes important for learning – clear goals, lessons that can be practiced repeatedly until mastered, monitoring learner progress and adjusting instruction to learner level of mastery, closing the gap between what is learned and its use, motivation that encourages time on task, personalization of learning, and infinite patience.

Some computer-assisted instruction (CAI) software determines the current skill proficiency of the learner; defines the steps required to achieve greater proficiency; and provides a media-based intervention. Online test preparation software falls into this category. Pedagogically, it has evolved from B.F. Skinner’s research on operant conditioning, which asserts that every learner can master a skill given enough repetition and feedback. The opportunity to practice until a specific skill is mastered is the foundation of all online test preparation.

Whether used to reinforce direct instruction or as a skill refresher prior to taking state tests, online test preparation allows the teacher to customize practice levels and specific skills for unlimited repetition until the student achieves mastery and moves on. Motivation to stay on task is accomplished through positive reinforcement. In the best test preparation software, not only are positive messages embedded in the practice segments, but gaming modules can be used as a reward for reaching skill objectives. The psychological foundation of positive reinforcement is that the consequence (playing the game module) is dependent upon the behavior (skill mastery on test preparation questions). The teacher has control over the quantity of questions and the frequency of the game modules. The game modules can be activated or deactivated as the instructor deems appropriate.

The goal of “performance-based” content such as online test preparation is that the student will increase his or her proficiency and has the opportunity for unlimited practice and repetition until that goal is achieved. From the student’s perspective, the outcome (the opportunity to play a game) is contingent upon the behavior of achieving mastery of specified skills. There is a direct causal relationship. The reward of playing the game module reinforces the behavior or “induces learning” through the acquisition of skills. The positive reinforcement of playing the game increases the likelihood that the student will be successful in achieving the learning objectives of the software.

Over the last few years, most educators have learned how to incorporate CAI into the classroom and how to evaluate it to ensure that it does, in fact, extend the benefits of human direct instruction. Researchers have developed the following criteria to evaluate software:

  • Is the material clear and inviting?
  • Is there sufficient repetition of concepts?
  • Is there built-in positive reinforcement for students? In what form?
  • Does it result in keeping the student on task?
  • Does the student receive feedback on incorrect answers?
  • Is the content age- and grade-appropriate?
  • Is the program effective in achieving the learning objectives?

Online test preparation programs offer educators reports to determine if a student is successful or not; and whether or not intervention with more direct instruction is necessary. Game modules and positive messages serve the purpose of keeping students on task until the learning goals are achieved. Some have compared the mastery of certain basic skills to a musician’s need to practice scales. A musician must have acquired a certain number of skills in order to have the foundation to create something new and spontaneous or to effectively collaborate or perform with other musicians. The same is true for basic reading, math, and analysis skills. Students must establish a foundation of critical success skills in order to be ready to exercise the higher order thinking skills of creativity and imagination. The opportunity to play games motivates students to complete the practice modules so that they sufficiently master the skills and acquire the tools they need to move on to more complex content.