Review: Test-enhanced Learning, Applying Science of Learning in Education

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By Sophie Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law

The authors of Test-enhanced Learning (Mary A. Pyc, Pooja K. Agarwal & Henry l. Roediger, III) give testing a good name. Summarizing the results of empirical research studies, they show that “[p]ractice tests have been shown to improve long-term retention across the lifespan . . . and have been documented using a wide range of materials and experimental designs . . .” (citations omitted). While many of have seen the value of giving students multiple opportunities to practice and get feedback on their learning, this chapter goes further, noting the scientific results of different testing approaches across a range of disciplines. Consider some of their points.

  • Rereading is less effective long-term than taking practice tests. Example: to prepare for a test, some students read a passage four times. A second group read the same passage once, and then practiced three free recall tests. Students were tested five minutes or one week later. “[O]n an immediate test, cramming works. . . . [W]hen the delayed final test was given one week later, the opposite pattern of results were obtained: Recall was best when students had been tested three times during practice and worst when they had read the passage four times.” (citations omitted).
  • Testing with immediate feedback is more effective than taking practice tests alone. When students receive correct answers immediately after taking a practice test, they perform at a higher level than when they receive no feedback. Students tend to perform better on test items they initially got wrong, but “for more complex materials, feedback can also help students even when they get the answer correct (and especially when they provide a correct answer with low confidence).” (citations omitted).
  • Practice tests help students learn, regardless of format. The act of taking a practice test-short answer, essay, or multiple-choice-helps students improve their exam performance, even when the final exam format is different. Using clickers (electronic response systems) and having students respond to questions verbally all help student exam performance.

Test-enhanced Learning suggests a number of ways to incorporate low-stakes practice testing in the classroom. Among other techniques, the authors recommend asking all students take a minute to write down a response to a question, using clickers, and giving frequent short quizzes. Moreover, the research suggests that intentionally employing cumulative practice tests will help our students’ long-term learning. When students have to repeatedly review and practice material, not just the material most recently taught and which is easiest to recall and apply, their learning is more likely to last beyond the final exam.

Test-enhanced Learning is a chapter in Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (Victor A. Benassi, Catherine E. Overson & Christopher M. Hakal, eds. 2014; begins page 78).

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