Taking Tests Improves Long-Term Retention

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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To recover learning lost, should teachers test their students more than in any other academic year?

This research highlights the importance of in-class assessment, and that it should be a regular feature in all classrooms if we want students to remember information.

Testing is good for young people

Who’d have thought, that taking a test was actually good for learning?

After all, if we all want students to learn, we need to create the conditions for them to be assessed in order to get better.

No one would argue that completing some form of assessment in or out of the classroom is good for long-term retention. The real crux is, the context of the test itself and how the data is then used.

In a research paper, published by the Association for Psychological Science (2006), Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention suggests that “taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention.” A phenomenon known as the testing effect (not gone, but nearly forgotten).

Published by Roediger III and Karpicke, two of my (increasingly) favourite academics, reference developing studies around the world. The authors make a very strong provocation from the beginning.

“We believe that the neglect of testing in all levels of education is misguided.”

The authors state that this is an obvious point, that “if students know they will be tested regularly, they will study more” on the study throughout the academic year.

Research aims and methodology

The aim of the research paper was to investigate the testing effect on relevant conditions, using “prose materials and free-recall tests without feedback.” At the time of publication, the paper highlights that most previous research had used tests which involve recognition. For example, multiple-choice tests.

When students are exposed to the material, it is no surprise the students will learn more.

To improve my understanding of the methodology used in this study, and to get to grips with the process for my own research, it is important to understand the context in which this research was completed.

Two experiments were conducted with 120 Washington University undergraduates, ages 18 to 24. You will need to read the fine details to fully understand my summary here, but essentially the headline is that one experimental condition was to ask students to restudy versus being tested, and the second experiment was to study, study again, complete a single test and/or repeat a test.

Do tests improve memory?

Both experiments showed the same pattern.

Immediate testing after reading a prose passage promoted better long-term retention than repeatedly studying the passage. And this was without any feedback too!

This research offers a stark message for schools. Perhaps teachers should be testing students more to improve their confidence and test scores, rather than spend unnecessary time providing written and verbal feedback?

The research also highlights that the testing effect is not simply a result of students gain reexposure to the material, because re-studying allowed students to re-experience 100% of the material, but produced poor long-term retention.

Delayed retrieval practice tests, produce substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence.

The challenge for teachers is the weigh up what type of test is delivered, and when, and then what purpose it serves. To improve confidence, or to improve the score.

Source: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention, Roediger, III, and Karpicke, 2006.

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