The Science of Learning: Testing Effect

The testing effect is all about memory. If you need to have information memorized, the testing effect is said to be your most powerful tool.

The testing effect is a simple to administer intervention that strengthens memory traces – in fact, some researchers specify this as being the most important, ignored finding in memory and formal learning research. In a beautifully done study by Roediger & Karpicke (2004), there were three groups of subjects who were trying to remember material that was presented to them. They learned the material one-week, and then their recall was measured a week later to see how well they remembered the information.

The first group had four, ten-minute time slots to study and learn the material as well as they could (group SSSS – study, study, study, study). The second group had three, ten-minute time slots to learn and study the material as well as they could, with a recall test in the fourth ten-minute time slot (group SSST – study, study, study, test). The third group had one, ten-minute time slot to study and learn the material, and then had three ten-minute tests to recall as much of the material as they could (STTT – study, test, test, test). Half of the subjects in each group took a test five minutes after the full one hour study was finished the first week in order to measure their recall immediately following the learning phase of the study (5 min column in Table 2). All of the subjects then came back a week later to have a ten-minute test to measure how much they recalled (1-week column in Table 2). Table 1 shows you how the study was organized, and an estimate of how much time the subjects had to study and learn the material, and Table 2 shows you the outcome.

Table 1 (based on Roediger & Karpicke (2004))

Mean number of times subjects were able to read the entire passage during 5-minute study periods in Experiment 2 with the total number of times the passage was read in the final column

Study Period

Condition                  1         2         3         4                     Sum

SSSS                           3.4      3.5      3.6      3.7                  14.2

SSST                           3.2      3.5      3.6                              10.3

STTT                          3.4                                                     3.4

Table 2 (based on Roediger & Karpicke (2004))

Mean percentage of idea units recalled on the retention tests and forgetting scores in Experiment 2

Retention Interval

Condition                  5 min             1 week                       Forgetting

SSSS                           83%               40%                           43%

SSST                           78%               56%                           22%

STTT                          71%               61%                           10%

Sometimes it takes a picture to really drive the point home.

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Amazingly, although the group who spent all their time studying and learning the material (going over the passage an average of 14.2 times) remembered by far the most material immediately following their study phase (83%), they performed, by far, the worst a week later (40%), forgetting the most material during the week between sessions (43%). Could this be the cramming I wrote about a few weeks ago?

The subjects who spent only five minutes trying to study and learn the information and only went over the passage an average of 3.4 times in total (a single five-minute study period) performed the worst in the first week (71%) but remembered the most a week later (61%) forgetting the least during the week (10%).

Trying to recall information or effortful recall found in the application of the testing effect has been demonstrated to provide the greatest benefit for remembering what it is that you are trying to learn. But, because of the overassessment philosophy in education, students don’t do this because teachers don’t use this. Remember, it is considered a waste of time to measure what the students learn more than once.

I was talking to a school principal about the testing effect one time and explained, in some detail, how it worked. I carefully explained the tremendous benefits that could be accrued from implementing the testing effect in his school. His reply knocked me off my chair and literally left me speechless! He said (and I kid you not), “But what would I do with all those grades?” How can someone with that kind of mentality oversee the education of hundreds of elementary school children? Education is not about learning, it is about teaching, or in this case, about administration.

It is about time we began to use the testing effect when we need to teach material that is important to remember. Roediger & Karpicke’s work is fairly recent – 12 years, so there needs to be some time for the principle of exerting energy to recall information, or effortful recall, which strengthens memory traces, is taken up in education. Except that Ballard observed and wrote about the Testing Effect in 1913 in an educational journal. Maybe we just haven’t waited long enough for this cutting edge Science of Learning discovery to make it into education.

After all, education is not about learning, it is about teaching, or maybe administration.

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