Testing has a prominent role in most college courses. It's the method most often used to determine the extent to which students have mastered the material in the course. Say “tests” and thoughts jump immediately to evaluation and grades, with students thinking “stressful” simultaneously or shortly thereafter.
Testing has a prominent role in most college courses. It's the method most often used to determine the extent to which students have mastered the material in the course. Say “tests” and thoughts jump immediately to evaluation and grades, with students thinking “stressful” simultaneously or shortly thereafter. What rarely crosses the minds of students and teachers is the power of testing to promote learning. Cynthia J. Brame, Ph.D., and Rachel Biel, CFT in their article, Test-enhanced learning: The potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses, noted that “One of the most consistent findings in cognitive psychology is that testing leads to increased retention more than studying alone does.” (p. 1)
Testing, as it's understood by teachers and students, “does not reflect the setting in which the benefits of ‘test-enhanced learning' have been experienced. In the experiments done in cognitive science laboratories, the ‘testing' was simply a learning activity for students.” (p. 9) It was “no stakes” (as in it didn't count in grade calculation) or “low stakes” (as in it counted very little). Brame and Biel think “retrieval practice” might be a more accurate description of the activity involved here.
The article highlights research that documents six positive benefits achieved by this kind of testing. They are derived from studies that involved undergraduates “learning educationally relevant materials (e.g., text passages as opposed to word pairs).” (p.1) Here's a brief synopsis of each effect. They are described in much greater detail in the article with highlights from individual studies and an elaborate table.
Repeated retrieval enhances long-term retention in a laboratory setting. When you learn something new, the more times you retrieve the information, the better you remember it. Studies here document that repeated testing (which is all about retrieval) facilitated long-term retention better than studying did. In other words, testing oneself with questions is more effective than just going over the material.
Various testing formats can enhance learning. The questions can be multiple choice; they can be short answer, cued recall, even free recall. Various questions types have been shown to provide significant benefit over study alone.Feedback enhances the benefits of testing. Simply answering questions did improve performance, but feedback, as in finding out the correct answer, provided an added benefit.
Learning is not limited to rote memory. To some faculty, test-enhanced learning may seem like the kind of testing that encourages students to just memorize material. The authors discuss research here that identifies benefits beyond simple recall, such as being able to transfer knowledge to different domains.
Testing potentiates further study. The case in point here is pretesting and research documenting that it improves students' studying, perhaps by cuing them to focus on key ideas.
The benefits of testing appear to extend to the classroom. All of the research highlighted in support of the previous five benefits was conducted in laboratories. However, there are studies suggesting “the benefits of testing may also extend to the classroom.” (p. 8)
The authors conclude with a section that suggests some ways faculty might consider implementing what is known about test-enhanced learning.
More and frequent quizzing. “The studies summarized earlier suggest that providing students the opportunity for retrieval practice—and ideally, providing feedback for the responses—will increase learning of targeted and related material.” (p. 10)
Providing “summary points” during a class. This approach encourages retrieval practice by asking students to use their words to recall key or main points at various intervals during a class period and/or at its conclusion. Their summaries could be written in their notes, shared with those nearby, or spoken in class.
Use of pretesting. Testing students' prior knowledge of a subject appears to “prime” them for learning. These tests could be administered at the beginning of a unit or class session or online with a question set that students could be told they will need to be able to answer after learning the material.
Sharing what is known about test-enhanced learning. The recommendation here is to talk with students about this kind of testing, explaining how it has been shown to enhance learning. It will be a new way for students to think about testing, but it's certainly a more positive and less stressful take on the value of test questions and testing experiences.
Kudos to the authors for undertaking this review and putting together an article that makes the findings understandable and useful to practitioners. It's one of those pieces of scholarship prepared for faculty in one discipline that can be used to make teaching more evidence-based in any field.
Reference: Brame, C. J. & Biel, R., (2015). Test-enhanced learning: The potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 14 (Summer), 1-12.
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