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Thursday, 19 July 2018

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The Benefits of Practice Testing

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


I have heard people say in recent years that there is no longer a need to retain facts, since they can be so easily and quickly looked up on the internet. While this may be true for superficial pieces of information, such as the exact date of a historical event or the name of a national capital city, the retention of a well-selected fact base can still play a hugely important role in learning.

We need facts to think. It is extremely difficult, for example, to draw historical conclusions without having a solid grasp of the chronology of events. Needing to look up basic math facts individually to solve a complex problem is also not particularly productive. So, given that retaining information has not become an obsolete art, how can we support our students in retaining important facts in order to use them to think in more complex ways?

One strategy that has proven effective in helping students retain information is the use of practice tests. Adesope, Trevisan, and Narayankripa (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of research in this area, which included 188 articles and 272 independent effect sizes. Investigating the connection between practice testing and knowledge retention, they asked the following questions:

“What are the learning effects involved in taking a practice test compared with other learning conditions? Do various features of practice tests foster different learning benefits on a final test? To what degree would the testing effect vary based on whether feedback was (or was not) provided during the initial practice test?”

What were the results?

Overall, the positive effect of giving practice tests on knowledge retention compared to restudying was moderately large and statistically significant.

• These effects were seen in studies both in laboratories and in classrooms.

• The effects were larger if practice tests were only carried out once.

• The effect size was larger if the original learning involved reading or studying a passage rather than learning word lists or paired words.

• Mixed test formats and multiple-choice formats on practice tests produced larger effect sizes (as opposed to free-recall, cued-recall, and short-answer tests).

• The effects of practice tests were stronger if the practice test and the final test had the same format.

• While the weighted mean effect size was slightly larger when feedback was given on the practice test than when it was not, this difference was not statistically significant.

• The largest effect sizes were achieved with a time lag between practice test and test of one to six days, but the effect was robust across all time intervals.

• The testing effect was evident for all outcomes relating to both retention and transfer, though most of the studies used retention tests.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

Adesope, Trevisan, and Narayankripa caution against reading some of these findings too narrowly. The finding that multiple-choice practice tests had larger effect sizes than other formats contradicts an increasing body of research, which finds that the more effortful the retrieval, the more beneficial it is for future retention. Further analysis of the studies that were included in the meta-analysis would be necessary to explore exactly how this finding emerged. It could be related to the nature of the final test or to the type of material studied. It should be noted that many of the experiments had narrow learning goals related to word recognition or word pairs. For more complex learning goals, multiple choice formats may not be as useful.

The finding that feedback did not significantly increase retention is also interesting. The researchers note that none of the studies clearly described the nature of the feedback. There is also no mention of whether or not opportunities to re-study material were provided in cases where feedback showed that students had failed to master it during initial learning.

The final finding that should be interpreted with caution is the idea that retention is higher if the practice test and the final test have an identical format. Does this lead to greater learning? Or does it simply increase test scores through familiarity? The latter may particularly be the case with multiple-choice testing. It is important to note that recognition and familiarity are not the same as the ability to retrieve information from memory.

Overall, the very idea of conducting more testing in our classrooms may make some of us feel uncomfortable. The researchers themselves suggest that the main message we should take from this meta-analysis is actually much broader. The clear finding is that creating opportunities for the retrieval of information strengthens the ability to retrieve it again in the future. Such opportunities for retrieval can be created in many ways, not just using practice tests.

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