The value of testing – on the back of a postage stamp
In an effort to spread the word about some of the most robustly researched psychological effects which can be used to support learning, I’ve been having a go at creating gimmicky memes.
This one is on the ‘testing effect’, or as it’s sometimes called, retrieval practice. I’ve written about the testing effect before here and have discussed some of the recent research evidence in more depth here. But for those who are understandably unwilling to trawl through my back catalogue, I’ll briefly explain the 4 points made above
1. We often think we know things which we have in fact forgotten. This is the Illusion of Knowledge.
When we study something we often have a sense of familiarity with the subject matter despite the fact that we don’t really remember any of the details. If you listen to a lecture, read a book or watch a film then all you may be left with after a period of time is a vague idea of the overarching themes and a memory of whether or not you liked it. This is often enough to create the illusion of knowledge. If students leave a lesson secure and certain they have understood the concepts being discussed they will often believe they know the subject matter they studied. They remember that they knew something but fail to notice that the substance of what they knew has faded away; all that remains is the illusory certainty that the thing is known. This illusion can feel comforting, but often results in a shock when the extent of our ignorance is revealed.
2. Testing provides excellent feedback on what we have forgotten.
When we’re asked a question about what it is we think we know, we get very reliable feedback on the extent of our knowledge. If we can’t provide an answer – even if we feel it’s on the tip of our tongue – then we clearly didn’t know it as well as we thought we did. This can be a jarring but very useful experience. When we think we know something we tend to be complacent about the need to consolidate this knowledge, but when know we don’t know a thing, we’re much more likely to do something about it.
3.Testing provides retrieval practice which improves our ability to bring information to mind when we need it.
Retrieval practice helps develop the storage strength of items we want to remember. The more often we try to bring something to mind – and the greater the range of contexts in which we try to recall material – the better it’s stored in long-term memory. With sufficient retrieval practice ideas can become so well stored that they are easy to retrieve whenever and where ever they’re required.
4.Ideally, testing should be low, or zero stakes. High stakes testing can cause anxiety which sometimes reduced the benefits of testing.
Many students dread taking tests and testing has acquired something of a terrible reputation amongst teachers. But as I explained here, it’s not tests that cause anxiety but the stakes attached to the results of the test. If the consequences for failure are too high, students’ performance can be impaired. Fortunately, the benefits of testing don’t depend on high stakes. Some psychologists have argued that students don’t even need to get feedback on the results of a test in order to benefit from the testing effect: all you need is to undermine the sense of certainty produced by the illusion of knowledge. That may or may not be the case, but as providing feedback on whether students can or can’t answer a question is pretty straightforward it seems perverse not to tell them. In fact, some research suggests that if corrects answers are not provided as quickly as possible then students may end up learning the incorrect answer they have given.
The only other point to add is that testing does not have to be formal – indeed, there’s no requirement for tests to be pen and paper exercises at all. Some of the most effective testing can come about as a result of teachers asking students questions in class. Other ideas might include getting students to draw or diagram what they know about a topic or perhaps even reassembling a table of information cut up into a card sort activity. All that’s required is for students to know what they don’t know.
In addition, here are two papers you might find interesting: