Tests have a bad reputation and it’s time to change that. Their effectiveness as a learning tool is tremendous, but students don’t use tests as much as they should. We’ll look at recent scientific studies that compare testing to other learning methods, the neuroscience of memories and forgetting and how testing could be implemented effectively in schools and universities.
During my years at school and university I often found myself the day before an exam, trying to frantically cram all the study material into my brain. After having written the exam, the learning process went into reverse mode and all of the study material was wiped clean from my memory. This type of learning is also commonly referred to as bulimic learning – devour and regurgitate.
My teachers always used to say “we don’t learn for school, but for life”. As a school kid that was hard to believe since I was restarting my brain drive right after exam period. Many people – including myself – like to mock the phrase by reversing its meaning: “we don’t learn for life, but for school”. This version of the phrase is actually the original one by Lucius Seneca, a Roman philosopher. Seneca was actually criticizing schools for not teaching life-relevant material.
What I’d like to argue today is two-fold. First, todays’ bulimic learning is a terrible way for students to learn because it is highly inefficient and it shifts the students’ focus away from the process of learning and towards examination. Second, recent scientific evidence points out that testing can be used as a highly effective learning tool, which means that we might have to change the way we use testing in the classroom and for ourselves.
How Students Learn
A 2009 study looked at the most prominent learning methods used by students (see table below) (Source). Rereading notes or textbook is by far the most popular learning method with 83.6% of students applying it. Doing practice problems (42.9%) and flashcards (40.1%) were also high up, but nowhere near rereading notes. But how do these methods compare in efficiency? If students were to test out methods in an experimental setting, would they be able to retain more information with one method versus another? And if one method is better than another, how large is the difference?
When practicing for an exam we traditionally think in two stages: studying and testing. During stage one (studying) students expose themselves to the material (reading a book, watching a lecture) so that new memories can be formed. During stage two (testing) we reproduce what we have learned into a measurable form. This is what tests have been designed to do. However, research findings found that a significant portion of the learning process actually happens during testing:
The Testing Effect
In an experiment from 2005, university students were asked to alternate between studying 40 English-Swahili word-pairs and testing their knowledge (Source). Take a look at the table below. The students went through 4 study and 4 testing periods (the columns from 1 to 8). They started with a study period (S) followed by a testing period (T) and so on. There were 4 different conditions (look at the rows). The first group (ST) continued studying and testing ALL 40 word-pairs, irrespective of whether word-pairs had been recalled successfully in the last testing period (T). This is like having a deck of flashcards and continue studying them all, irrespective of how well you feel acquainted with the card. You can see in the ST row that the number of studied and tested words is always 40. All word-pairs stay in the loop.
The second group (SNT) removed those word-pairs from their study periods if they had been recalled correctly during the previous testing period. In other words, this is like leaving out flashcards that you feel comfortable with from your studying, but still testing yourself on them. ST and SNT are the same with respect to the testing period – both continue testing themselves on all flashcards.
The two remaining groups (STN and SNTN) take successfully recalled word-pairs out of the test. The SNTN group also takes successfully recalled word-pairs out of the studying period. The nice thing about this design is that we can trace back with very high certainty the relative contribution of both studying and testing to the actual learning.
To the results: The students were tested 1 week after the experiment to see how many of the word-pairs they still remembered. What do you think was more predictive of successful recall: Keeping words in the studying phase or keeping them in the testing phase?
The bar chart shows that two groups that kept all the word-pairs in the testing period (ST and SNT) recalled ~80%, while the ones that had dropped them from the testing period only recalled ~30%. Whether word-pairs remained in the study period, however, had practically no effect on their performance. The first two groups (ST and SNT) don’t differ from each other although ST continued studying all word-pairs and SNT dropped them. The same goes for STN and SNTN. Again: Whether word-pairs remained in the study period had virtually no effect on performance.
What does this mean? First of all, most of the learning occurred during testing and not during studying! Testing is traditionally used as a measuring tool of how much a student has learned, but if most of the learning occurs during testing then we have to change the way we think of testing. Second, remember that 84% of students preferred studying by rereading notes? This form of studying is pretty much what the students in this experiment were doing in the study period – exposing themselves to the information. The second most popular study method – flashcards – is used by about 43% of students, which is impressive, but still very distant from the whopping 84% of students that reread notes. Flashcards are more similar to what students were doing in the testing period – trying to recall information.
The difference of these two methods – exposing yourself to the information (rereading notes) and trying to recall information (flashcards) – is what we are going to look at in more detail now by taking a crash course in the neuroscience of learning. We will be able to categorize all study methods into two groups: passive review and active recall.
Memories: A Battle Between Learning and Forgetting
In very very simple terms: Your brain is made up of cells called neurons that form a giant network of connections amongst each other through which they can send electric signals. These connections and the signals that run through them basically make up everything you are. Every single thought and memory you have is a specific activity pattern in the neural mesh. A memory is simply a specific network of neurons and when these send electric signals to each other they give rise to that memory they stand for.
A memory can be forgotten if it is not activated enough. Think of forgetting in terms of a snow-covered parking lot. Walking on the snow leaves traces – your memory. Forgetting is like fresh snow that makes your traces slowly fade. The only way to keep the memory from fading is to activate it frequently – to re-walk the path.
There are two ways to re-walk the path: passive review and active recall. During passive review previously formed memories are activated through the mere exposure to the material. For example, seeing a picture of your dog makes you remember your dog. Reading your shopping list makes you remember the items you wanted to buy. Rereading notes – the most popular study method – is passive review because you expose yourself to previously encoded information. Active recall on the other hand does not involve exposure, but the student has to actively remember the information. For example, remembering your new mobile number or what you ate last evening for dinner are active recalls. Flashcards involve active recall. “Who invented dynamite?” or “what is the capital of Japan?” Because the answer is written on the back of the card no exposure to the information can occur and it has to be recalled with effort.
Forgetting can be prevented if the memory is used frequently. Even Aristotle knew this when he wrote “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory” (Source). This is why the muscle is used as an analogy to describe how the brain works – both deteriorate if not used.
In summary, neurons form connections with each other through which signals can be sent. A memory is a network of neurons that are connected to each other. Recalling a memory means sending a signal through that network. Forgetting happens when a memory is not being activated for a period of time. As a consequence, the network deteriorates or becomes inaccessible. Finally, a memory can be activated through passive review (exposure, no effort) or active recall (no exposure, effort). Rereading notes is a form of passive review while flashcards are a form of active recall.
The question that remains to be answered is why the large majority of students like to use rereading notes – a relatively ineffective study method. Are they able to judge the (in)effectiveness of their methods? A similar study as the one from before compared testing to elaborative concept mapping (building a mind map from the most important of a text that the students read). Although 84% of students that underwent testing performed better than the ones doing concept mapping, 75% of students believed that concept mapping was equal to or better than testing (Source).
The ability to observe ones’ own thinking (‘thinking about thinking’) is referred to as metacognition an extremely important ability that allows us to do all kinds of things: question our approaches, find alternative solutions, adopt more effective ways of thinking. In our case, students were unable to successfully deploy metacognition to notice the ineffectiveness of rereading notes relative to other methods. One plausible explanation is that students get a wrong sense of mastery during rereading study notes. The more you read your notes the more familiar they will become. If I were to take a multiple-choice exam without the A, B, C and D answer options I would not be able to answer as many questions as compared to when they are presented. I can recognize and pick out the one that seems familiar to me and probably be right as well. This feeling of familiarity gives the illusion of mastery. This concept is closely linked to passive review. The simple exposure of the study material activates the memory, but that doesn’t mean that we will be able to activate the memory if not being exposed to it.
Testing on the other hand does not lead to an illusion of mastery – rather to the opposite. You either know what is written on the back of the flashcard or you don’t. Students coming from rereading notes to testing may feel very much discouraged by the untainted reality of their state of knowledge. Students want to feel prepared for the test and the illusion of mastery offers just that. It feels good after all!
One final point may be that students simply prefer reading notes because it requires less preparation. Writing flashcards takes a lot of time and why should students do it if they already spent time preparing their study notes? This is of course possible.
What do we do with all this?
We first looked at the most popular study methods used in school and asked how effective these are in helping students learn effectively. A study found strong evidence that questions our traditional understanding that testing only serves as a measuring tool of what we have learned during studying. Instead, much of the actual learning happens during testing. But testing is just a form of active recall, which is the effortful process of remembering something versus exposing oneself to it (passive review). Finally, we speculated that students are unable to successfully compare the effectiveness of study methods for learning because of the illusion of mastery. Rereading study notes is simply the exposure to the material as a means to activating a memory, but recalling the information without exposure in the future is not guaranteed.
What do we do with this?
- Get students to use testing
Students must learn about the effectiveness of testing as a study method. They are interested in getting good grades and if there is a better way of achieving that they would probably change their study behavior even if that means a tougher reality. The long-term outcome will anyway be better! I would do it! The authors of the discussed study invented a study method that is fairly simple to use and independent of the teacher. It’s called the 3R method (Read-Recite-Review). Students read a text, recite everything they remember and reread the passage to confirm. This simple method has been found to outperform note-taking and rereading both for simple and complex texts (Source).
- Introduce technology
Here is a problem: when testing is used to grade students, then they will study. Studying takes time, which means you cannot have too many tests. If tests are not graded, then students will not study and the test cannot have the desired learning effect. Learning apps offer a way out of this dilemma. Such apps confront their users with lots of tests, which are important to show off learning progress. In the digital world, tests can be perceived as a fun activity – like a challenge or even a game. There is certainly some incentive for students to learn, but the tests won’t have a real impact on their lives. Therefore, they can use the way we want them to use tests: as a learning method.
- Testing for feedback
Frequent testing is a form of formative evaluation (Previous post: Feedback) that can help students make adjustments to their performance early on and avoid nasty surprises such as a failed final exam. Frequent testing can have a nice side-effect: when the final exam is just around the corner, students will probably still remember far more because of the tests spread throughout the year. Therefore, bulimic learning will not be as extreme as before.