Improve student learning and metacognitive skills with frequent tests
August 30, 2016 | Claudia Stanny
Students and instructors are well familiar with tests used to assess learning. However, tests also create benefits for learning. The testing effect has been studied (and replicated) extensively in both laboratory research on memory and applied studies of classroom learning. Soderstom & Bjork (2014) outline the benefits of testing, replicated major findings, and explored how metacognition improves when students experience multiple tests on studied material.
Soderstrom & Bjork argue that testing improves learning through direct and indirect mechanisms.
Direct benefits of testing. Answering test questions requires students to retrieve information from memory. The act of retrieval modifies memory for the tested information, making this information easier to recall in the future. Non-tested material also becomes more memorable when students evaluate incorrect alternatives on a multiple-choice test and retrieve course information to explain why these alternatives cannot be the correct answer.
Indirect benefits of testing. Feedback about correct and incorrect answers provides students with unambiguous information about which material they had difficulty remembering or explaining. Armed with this knowledge, students choose to allocate more time to this material the next time they study. Moreover, Soderstrom & Bjork found that students self-reported using more effective study strategies after they had feedback from a test. Before testing, most students reported using study strategies based on rote repetition, attentive reading, and focused attention (all low-level, relatively ineffective study strategies). After testing, more students reported that they used imagery, created semantic references for information, or generated explanations in their own words when they studied. Memory research documents that these strategies are more effective for creating enduring learning.
Testing improves metacognition. Metacognition refers to our understanding about what we know and our ability to regulate our learning and memory by selecting effective strategies for learning new information. Feedback from a test alerts students to gaps in their knowledge, which improves their ability to predict future test performance. Students use this information to direct study time toward areas that need the most practice and study. They also learn that the strategies they used to study for the test were not very effective and adopt more effective strategies to restudy material for missed items and apply these improved strategies to new learning.
Small Teaching (Lang, 2016) explores small changes instructors can make to their class that require minimal effort but can produce large benefits for student learning. Creating opportunities for multiple tests can produce large benefits for student performance, as reviewed by Soderstom & Bjork (2014). Lang proposes simple, low-effort strategies to introduce more testing in a class:
Create low-stakes tests at the beginning of class to give students practice retrieving information from the previous lecture or from the readings assigned for the current lecture. These can take the form of online quizzes (graded in eLearning), clicker questions (ungraded, with immediate feedback in class), or opening essay questions that will create a context for the material discussed in class.
- Assign minute papers during class or at the close of class. Create a prompt that requires students to paraphrase or explain a concept discussed in class. Alternatively, ask them to apply concepts discussed that day to propose a solution to a relevant problem in a real-world situation. Maximize the need for effortful retrieval of information from memory by asking students to write without consulting their book or their notes. Lang suggests asking students to make two copies (the answers should be about half a page). You can collect one copy to review answers and discuss at the start of class the following day and use to record attendance. Students can correct errors in their answers on their copy in class when you discuss (no formal grading for you).
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Testing facilitates the regulation of subsequent study time. Journal of Memory and Language, 73, 99-115. Doi:10.1016/j.jml.2014.03.003
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