Testing: good practice! – Mary Power

If you have been reading our blog lately you may have noticed a bit of New York theme going on. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to continue the trend. Maybe not quite so glamorous as a trip to the Big Apple, but a recent article in the New York Times entitled “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” caught my eye. The article was reporting on a paper published in Science by Jeff Karpicke and Janell Blunt of Purdue University. The Science paper reports that students who studied by retrieval testing (better know as writing it down or essay writing) performed significantly better on both recall and inference questions upon testing than did those who repeatedly read material, or those who created concept maps. In a second phase of the study, all students attempted two study methods, retrieval testing and concept mapping. Again, when tested for long-term retention students performed better with retrieval practice, even when the final test involved creating a concept map. The authors conclude that information retrieval involves reconstructing knowledge and therefore in itself is learning.

An article we discussed at a recent CTE Liaison journal club “Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies”  by Roher and Paschler came to the same conclusions. In a nutshell that article concluded that i) testing strengthens the memory and thus leads to learning (again writing or recall is better than recognition testing), ii) repetition (or interleaving) of study and testing is important (eg. cumulative testing), and iii) spacing or blocking of study is better than a single large study session followed by a test.

For me, an important thread in both papers was the finding that students who study by testing felt that less confident in their learning, yet performed better than other groups. Perhaps it is because mistakes are often seen as failure in our society? Or perhaps it is effort to retrieve and assimilate information, and thus not necessarily comfortable? In any case, isn’t it that struggle to understand, the act of making mistakes, the ability to identify those mistakes and knowledge gaps, and ultimately the opportunity to make corrections that is really what learning is about? I like to think so.

Testing sometimes receives a bad rap, but this research shows that if done well this time-honoured tradition can and does contribute to effective learning. There are many opportunities to test, from self-assessments, one minute summaries (really retrieval testing), pre- or post- lecture/lab quizzes, midterm exams and the list goes on. Yes – it does take time on the instructors part, especially since we all know how important feedback is to the learning process. But, isn’t it worth it? Our teaching tips sheets contain some excellent suggestions to help us think about designing effective tests. And Jeff Karpicke offers this challenge in his Science paper: “ This dynamic perspective on the human mind can pave the way for the design of new educational activities based on the consideration of retrieval processes.”

What say you?

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Mary Power

As Senior Instructional Developer, Blended Learning, Mary Power develops programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with faculty liaisons, Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), and Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services (ITMS), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. Mary is also involved in research projects related to the impact and effectiveness of blended learning.

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