Testing = Learning

In what seems likely to be an “ah ha” moment for education development, researchers at Purdue University’s Department of Psychological Sciences, explored the possibility that testing isn’t just an assessment of learning, but is a component that facilitates learning just like studying – but better.*

“Practicing retrieval (testing) produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.*

In an article published last month in Science magazine, a total of 200 students studied texts on topics from different science disciplines. One group engaged in elaborative studying by creating concept maps – diagrams that illustrate the complicated connections and relationships in the material. The second group read the texts and then practiced retrieval (unassisted recall of material). The students returned to the lab a week later for the actual assessment of long-term learning. The group that studied by practicing retrieval showed a 50% improvement in long-term retention scores above and beyond the group that studied by creating concept maps.

“Retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes.*”

The study asked the second group who had practiced retrieval but had not practiced elaborative studying, to create conceptual maps during their second assessment, in the same manner as the first group. The expectation was that the students who had already performed concept mapping once, would significantly outperform those who were being required to do it from memory for their first time. That was not the case.

“Students erroneously predicted that elaborative concept mapping (studying) would produce better long-term learning than retrieval practice (test taking).*”

The students also were asked to predict which technique – practicing retrieval or elaborative studying – would be best for their long-term learning. Seventy-five percent of students believed that elaborative concept mapping would be just as effective or even more effective than practicing retrieval. Most did not expect that retrieval practice would be more effective, but it was.

The study’s conclusion: “Research on retrieval practice suggests a view of how the human mind works that differs from everyday intuitions. Retrieval is not merely a read-out of the knowledge stored in one’s mind – the act of reconstructing knowledge itself enhances learning. This dynamic perspective on the human mind can pave the way for the design of new educational activities based on consideration of retrieval processes.*”

Testing ≠ Boring

The implication is that practicing retrieval is more valuable to learning than conventional study techniques. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy.

Those tasked with facilitating learning and information delivery, are now challenged to develop communication techniques and tools that help students practice retrieval in practical yet engaging ways.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Decrease size, increase frequency: Our online rule-of-thumb is some form of retrieval practice for every 2 to 4 screens of content. They don’t have to be long, under 15 minutes to complete, and can be additive. We call micro-tests “Challenges” to keep them friendly. Our library of Challenge templates is approaching 100 and growing weekly.
  • Offer options: Consider attaching “Assisted” or “Unassisted” options to each assessment. “Assisted” allows the user to re-access information for reference, “unassisted” is purely for retrieval practice.
  • Immediate feedback: Retrieval is most valid when results can be closely associated with their actions. The longer performance results are delayed, the less beneficial the retrieval practice.
  • Vary the delivery: Remember getting called on in 5th grade history class? That was retrieval practice. How about the card game Concentration? That and a lot of other games can be used to vary the delivery method.
  • Provide tools: To be retrieved, information must first be retained. Text-based delivery is only one of many options available and strong didactics will employ more than one.
  • Measure: Especially if you’re offering options, you’ll want to measure. Track not only learning progress but the retrieval practice tools that work best for a given subject or concept, and don’t be afraid to share metrics with your students.
  • Make them pass: Understand that while retrieval practice may look like testing, its value is as a learning tool more than an assessment tool. Hold standards high and work with students to achieve them before moving on.
  • Stay fluid: Like any broad generalization of learning styles, retrieval practice may fit /help many, but not all learners. If you’re measuring (above) you should learn what works and what doesn’t.

While there is nothing wrong with studying, the performance numbers supporting retrieval practice are too big to ignore. The challenge – ours and yours – will be a creative one as we explore new ways to bring it into the mainstream of learning.

*Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping – Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA – Published 1/20/11 in Science magazine.