Testing Works Best: Now The Questions How? How Much? And, When?

I told my wife about new research findings that make the case for testing as the most effective method for cementing information and the ability to recall it.

She replied in a deadpan tone “that’s why I give a lot of quizzes and tests.” I might also add that she teaches courses that conclude with tests- a state Algebra One test, the other, AP Calculus. Then, I recalled, that my English classes featured lots of quizzes and tests.

This is a big deal.

Over the past 20+ much has been made of student portfolio work, producing material over time, projects and the like. Collaboration and process become the buzzwords and M.O.

Pressurized, focused, challenging and, sometimes unpleasant, common wisdom held that you could learn and recall your learning, just as effectively over time, by building and constructing instead of testing. I’ve seen more than my fair share of humanities classes that concluded with a pile of paper rather than clear test, or product at their end. We teachers wanted to believe that accumulation of knowledge and work in a subject over time cemented data and recall in our brains as well preparing for and taking test.

Portfolios and projects anyone? Few tests were easier on the kids and easier on the faculty.

Conventional wisdom goes out on its ear again.

Researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt make the quick case in their abstract of “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping:”

“Educators rely heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying, while activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are used less frequently. Here, we show that practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across texts identical to those commonly found in science education. The advantage of retrieval practice was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences. The advantage of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.”(Science)

Purdue’s Karpicke told the New York Times:

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge…I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”(NYT)

Even Harvard’s Howard Gardner- father of multiple intelligence thinking and constructivism told the NYT in and e-mail that the research throws:

“‘down the gauntlet to those progressive educators, myself included.’

‘Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping…are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.’”(NYT)

As usual, the devil is in the details. Testing alone may not be the best way to cement knowledge.

The trick is suspect lies in further research to identify and develop the best, most effective combinations of approaches constructivist methods here; testing here. And what works best for each age group? All of this will of course be compounded by what works best for each individual student.

No matter how you look at it, Karpicke and Blunt clearly establish testing as and effective viable tool and measurement. Now, how do prepare our students?

Photo credit: billaday via Creative Commons

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