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Test-enhanced learning

Test-enhanced learning is the idea that the process of remembering concepts or facts—retrieving them from memory—increases long-term retention of those concepts or facts. This idea, also known as the testing effect, rests on myriad studies examining the ability of various types of “tests”—prompts to promote retrieval—to promote learning when compared to studying. It is one of the most consistent findings in cognitive psychology (Roediger and Butler 2011; Roediger and Pyc 2012).

There are many ways to take advantage of the testing effect, some during class time and some outside of class time. The following are a few suggestions.

  • Incorporating frequent quizzes into a class’s structure may promote student learning.These quizzes can consist of short-answer or multiple-choice questions, and can be administered online or face-to-face. Studies investigating the testing effect suggest that providing students the opportunity for retrieval practice—and ideally, providing feedback for the responses—will increase learning of targeted as well as related material.
  • Providing “summary points” during a class to encourage students to recall and articulate key elements of the class. Lyle and Crawford’s study examined the effects of asking to students to write the main points of the day’s class during the last few minutes of a class meeting, and observed a significant effect on student recall at the end of the semester (Lyle and Crawford, 2011). Setting aside the last few minutes of a class to ask students to recall, articulate, and organize their memory of the content of the day’s class may provide significant benefits to their later memory of these topics.
  • Pretesting to highlight important information and instructor expectations.Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and colleagues have reported results that suggest that pretesting students’ knowledge of a subject may prime them for learning (Little and Bjork, 2011). By pretesting students prior to a unit or even a day of instruction, an instructor may help alert students both to the types of questions that they need to be able to answer as well as the key concepts and facts they need to be alert to during study and instruction.
  • Telling students about the testing effect. Instructors may be able to aid their students’ metacognitive abilities by sharing a synopsis of these observations. Telling students that frequent quizzing helps learning—and that effective quizzing can take a variety of forms—can give them a particularly helpful tool to add to their learning toolkit (Stanger-Hall et al., 2011). Adding the potential benefits of pretesting may further empower students to take control of their own learning, such as by using example exams as primers for their learning rather than simply as pre-exam checks on their knowledge.

This list is a starting point. Instructors should use the principles that underlie test-enhanced learning—frequent low-stakes opportunities for students to practice recall—to develop approaches that are well-adapted for their class and context.

Important caveats to keep in mind

  • Keep it low-stakes
  • Share your learning objectives so that students understand their targets

References:

Brame CJ and Biel R (2015). Test-enhanced learning: The potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education 14, 1-12.The information in this guide has been published in CBE—Life Sciences Education (www.lifescied.org/content/14/2/es4.full.pdf+html).”

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