I’m on a quest for ways to get students using those study strategies that make them better learners. When the strategy goes by the label “test-enhanced learning” it isn’t an easy sell, and it’s even harder when students find out that means asking and answering potential test questions when they study. They’d much rather “look over” their notes, “look up” test question answers, and “look at” what they’ve highlighted in the reading. Asking and answering test questions means they have to “look into” the content, which is precisely why this strategy improves test scores.
That was recently verified in a study that involved first-year medical students enrolled in a biochemistry course. After a module of instruction, students took a multiple-choice pretest. Then they were given an hour to study the module material, either with self-directed study or by completing an open-book short-answer test. After the study session, students took another multiple-choice test on the content. The students who studied with the open-book test, scored higher on their final multiple-choice test. It’s a robust, but rather complicated study design with lots more details than there’s room for here.
What intrigued me about the study was that students were using their textbooks and notes to answer the short-answer questions. I wonder if some form of this activity might be used in an in-class or online review session or maybe even outside of class. Students could use their notes and the book to answer a set of questions, individually or with others, and making a good faith effort to do so gets them a few bonus points. This approach won’t be an option for most faculty if it means having to grade a second set of exams so it must be managed as a formative activity with no or very minimal feedback. I know, it does sound a lot like those study guide questions teachers provide and students don’t do. The key may be describing it as an exam and formatting that makes it look like a test.
I learned of another good option in a very short piece (Locklin, 2019) which describes a quiz strategy that also leans in the direction of test-enhanced learning. Students have eight minutes at the beginning of a period to do a quiz with three true/false, three multiple-choice, and four short-answer questions. They’re allowed to consult their books and notes during the final three minutes of the quiz time. The quizzes are “graded” immediately with the teacher providing the correct answers for about half the questions. The other half, always including the short-answer questions, are discussed, with evidence for various answer gathered and considered. The quizzing strategy is used in a religion course so there may be some questions with more than one single right answer.
The quiz is printed front and back of a single sheet of paper. Quiz questions are on one side of each page with ample space across from each question for students to take notes during the discussion of answers. After discussion the quizzes are collected and marked for participation with most of the credit going for the quality of the notes and not the correctness of the answers. It’s an interesting use of quizzes that also gets students answering questions in a more substantive way.
If you opt to use either of these approaches, you can’t promise students higher exam scores. But there’s a reasonably good chance that their scores will improve. The evidence that supports the test-enhanced learning strategy is extensive. More significantly, options like those described here demonstrate the value of studying with test questions. But don’t expect students to see that value and hurry home to study using them. To students, it looks like more work and it is. But if they want to learn the material in ways that will improve their exam scores, test-enhanced learning works a lot better than passively reviewing (“going over”) the content. Just be sure you point that out, maybe more than once.
References: Bobby, Z. and Meiyappan, K. (2018). “Test-Enhanced” focused self-directed learning after the teaching modules in biochemistry. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 46 (5), 472-477.
Locklin, R. (2019). The (mostly) unmarked quiz. Teaching Theology and Religion, 22 (1), 55.