Testing and Self-Testing Can Promote Learning and Academic Success

As you know, I am currently on a 6-month sabbatical leave. In the process of conducting my sabbatical project, I am reading all kind of papers and books about learning, memory and how humans retrieve taught material. The information that I have found regarding these issues is extremely interesting and useful for anyone who wants to learn something.  So, I have decided to share my current findings with you; I believe that this is useful for anyone, including parents.

Tests have a bad reputation

First, I have to say that I am discovering that even though I have been teaching for about 20 years, I only know little about how students learn. 

I don't think that I am telling you something new when I say that tests have a bad reputation in education. Students, parents, teachers, university professors...we all hate tests! Some of the criticisms associated with tests are that they take time, put students under pressure and in the case of standardized tests (elementary, junior and high schools), crowd out other educational priorities.

Interestingly, according to recent studies, testing as part of an educational routine can actually facilitate learning. This information was particularly new to me because conventional wisdom holds that if you want to learn something, study, study, study ... or, if you prefer reread, reread, reread! But new psychological research seems to suggest the mantra should be "test, test, test".

If done properly, testing yourself on an idea or concept (i.e., self-testing) actually helps you to remember it. This process is called the “testing effect” or “retrieval practice.” Apparently, people have known about the idea of retrieval practice for centuries. According to Dr. Henry Roediger, Professor of Psychology at Washington University and co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Sir Francis Bacon mentioned the idea of retrieval practice in his work as well as the psychologist William James.

Repeated Testing Promotes Learning

In a study published in the journal Science (319(5): 865), Dr. Jeff Karpicke (Purdue University) and Dr. Roediger found that students who were repeatedly tested on material significantly outperformed those who repeatedly studied it.

The researchers studied a variety of learning procedures with students memorizing a list of 40 Swahili-English word pairs (e.g., mbwa means dog). Initially, all students studied a list of the 40 words and then tested on them. Next, they divided students into four groups and each one of the groups was exposed to different study and test regimes. For instance, one group studied and was tested on all the words every time while another group was tested on all the words, but words they got correct were dropped from their study sheets. After four study and test regimes, all students in all groups scored ~100%.

But, the key issue of this study really happened a week later when students were tested one final time on the word pairs. The researchers found that the two groups that were repeatedly tested on the full set of words got about 80% of the word pairs correct in the final test, while the other groups--who studied all the words but were not repeatedly tested on their correct answers only knew ~35%.

My Takeaway: Testing is not the same than rereading

For me, the results of this study are fascinating and intriguing. For instance, it seems that testing may work better than straight-up studying, something that is often times called "rereading". Furthermore, testing can facilitate a better transfer of knowledge to new contexts and problems (e.g., this skill is essential when learning something new at work or when practicing a new sport), and that it improves one's ability to retain and retrieve material that is related but not tested. 

Another issue associated with rereading that is mentioned in the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is that "students whose study strategies emphasize rereading but not self-testing show overconfidence in their mastery of the material". In other words, these students believe that they know the material when, in fact, they don't. I find that this so true.

Over the last 20 years, I cannot count or remember the number of disappointed students who came to my office after getting back the results of their exams. Their arguments were often the same, "I spent hours reading my notes and I know that I knew the material. So, I don't understand why I got such a low grade". Many of these students spent hours rereading their notes, but never really tried to self-test themselves to assess how much they really knew.

What do I take away from this?
Most students don't like the idea of tests (or even self-testing), but I think that it's essential that we really emphasize the importance of tests, including self-testing to them. If you are a parent like me, you may also consider encouraging your child to develop the habit of self-testing him/herself when preparing for an exam or assessment.

I should add to this recommendation that according to the authors of these studies, that testing or self-testing is far more effective when it's broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. In other words, one or two test (or self-test during the semester) over a long-time period is not necessarily better than reareading. You need to perform these activities as often as possible. In my opinion, this may be the reason why standardized test don't work - they are only done once!

In summary, if you want your student or child to learn, you need to emphasize self-testing spaced out or broken into separate periods

What do you think about this? Do you use self-testing? Let me know if you have other related ideas?

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