The Testing Effect: It’s Not What You Think!


I’ve often wondered what the research says about how the brain learns best, and more importantly, are we using this research to inform what is happening in our classrooms? I finally got around to answering this question for myself. I started by searching for any credible research and books on the subject, and I found a fantastic book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

I am not a big fan of high stakes testing, and I always cringe when I hear the word testing, probably because of its overuse for things that don’t improve student outcomes. After reading this book, I think about testing in a completely different way. I learned that using the practice of retrieval from memory as a learning tool is known as the “Testing Effect” among psychologists, and is also called the retrieval-practice effect. There is a ton of valid research that concludes the practice of retrieval is the most efficient way to retain what we learn. Interestingly enough, many adults and students believe that reviewing material is the best way to increase our retention, and when we become familiar with the content we feel like we’ve mastered it, but the research tells us otherwise.

According to the research, to learn more efficiently and retain what you learn, the best strategies to employ are multiple forms of retrieval practice such as self-testing, spacing out practice over time, interleaving the practice of different but related topics, and trying to solve problems before being taught the solution. A few questions that immediately come to my mind are: To what extent are we intentionally using these strategies when we design our curriculum and assessments for students, and are we teaching staff and students how to study using these strategies?

According to a lot of research dating back to the early 1900’s, it seems there are a few key things we can do in our classrooms that will significantly improve student learning.

  • If we incorporate more low-stakes quizzing to practice retrieval of previously covered material.
  • Interleave the practice of different but related topics.
  • Design experiences that allow students to struggle with problems before teaching the solution.
  • Teach them how to quiz themselves in various ways, in place of re-reading, as a studying technique.

For anyone that is using these strategies in their classroom, have you seen significant gains in student achievement? How hard was it for your students to adjust to this new way of studying? Do you have any other information or ideas to share? I’d love to hear from you!

Author: chadmaxa

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