Meeting Four – Test Enhanced Learning (20th September)

Please note that this paper is not science-specific. The Science Teaching Journal Club would like to invite all teachers, not just science teachers, to participate in our fourth meeting; please invite your friends and colleagues.

Roediger, Henry and Jeffrey Karpicke, “Test-Enhanced Learning”, Psychological Science 17(3): 249-255. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x (.PDF 121kB)

ABSTRACT: Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect. We studied this effect with educationally relevant materials and investigated whether testing facilitates learning only because tests offer an opportunity to restudy material. In two experiments, students studied prose passages and took one or three immediate free-recall tests, without feedback, or restudied the material the same number of times as the students who received tests. Students then took a final retention test five minutes, two days, or one week later. When the final test was given after five minutes, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence in their ability to remember the material. Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.

Discussion Points:

  • The paper suggests that the act of being tested, not just simply revising for a test, can improve learning (“the testing effect”). Does this result surprise you?
  • The authors argue that “testing in all levels of education is misguided” and that “if students know they will be tested regularly … they will study more and will space their studying throughout the [term] rather than concentrating it just before exams”. Do you agree? Should we be including more testing in our teaching plans?
  • The results from the paper showed that immediate testing produced better long-term retention than repeated studying. Should we do away with infrequent end-of-unit tests in favour of more frequent end-of-lesson tests?
  • Does this paper suggest that we should we make more use of the spacing effect in our teaching?

Some key phrases from the paper:

“We believe that the neglect of testing in all levels of education is misguided. To state an obvious point, if students know they will be tested regularly (say, once a week, or even every class period), they will study more and will space their studying throughout the semester rather than concentrating it just before exams. However, more important for present purposes, testing has a powerful positive effect on future retention. If students are tested on material and successfully recall or recognize it, they will remember it better in the future than if they had not been tested. This phenomenon, called the testing effect, has been studied sporadically over a long period of time, but is not well known outside cognitive psychology.”

“Immediate testing after reading a prose passage promoted better long-term retention than repeatedly studying the passage. This outcome occurred even though the tests included no feedback.”

“The positive effects of testing were dramatic: Students in the repeated-testing condition recalled much more after a week than did students in the repeated-study condition, even though students in the former condition read the passage [far fewer] times. Testing has a powerful effect on long-term retention.”

“Many study conditions and strategies that produce rapid learning and short-term benefits lead to poor long-term performance. Our results show that testing versus studying is another case in point: Testing clearly introduced a desirable difficulty during learning.”

“This outcome on the immediate tests in the present experiments reveals just how powerful the testing effect is: Despite the benefits of repeated study shortly after learning, repeated testing produces strong positive effects on a delayed test.”

“We suspect that tests will produce strong effects when they occur relatively soon after learning and permit relatively high levels of performance.”

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2 Responses to Meeting Four – Test Enhanced Learning (20th September)

  1. Brian Frank says:


    I am searching like crazy for a paper I read last year about how MC-science tests often cause and reinforce misunderstandings, especially those that have distractors that are common misunderstanding. It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find it. The gist is this:

    Tests don’t cause learning. They reinforce behavior, because of repetition. If students mostly have the idea of what they are doing, tests can reinforce correct thinking. But in cases where students have ideas or ways of thinking that are counter to what you want them to learn, testing will actually reinforce the wrong ideas. For example, giving a pretest like the FCI actually makes it more difficult for your students to learn physics.

    Papers like this may be dangerous in their over generalization of the phenomena they report, because they assume that all kinds of learning are the same and happen the same way. As soon as I find the paper, I’ll come back and post a link. Arg.

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