Teaching Tip: Does the Time Students Spend Taking Tests Reduce the Time They can Spend Learning?
How often have you thought about the class time you give up to administer an in-class exam? Have you ever thought, “I don’t have time to schedule four or five exams. I need class time to cover content.”
Is exam-taking activity incompatible with learning? Recent research suggests the answer to this question is “no.” The psychological research on the testing effect clearly documents that taking a test can improve learning through direct and indirect mechanisms (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2014). Test do more than simply assess how much students have learned so far. They also improve students’ learning.
Direct benefits of tests on learning
Retrieving information from memory is like exercise. The more often you exercise, the stronger you get. Taking a test gives students practice at retrieving course content from memory (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Each time a student retrieves a piece of information from memory, retrieval cues grow stronger, and the information becomes easier to remember in the future. The benefits students get when they retrieve information to answer a test question exceed the benefits they get by rereading or engaging in other types of study.
Indirect benefits of tests on learning
Soderstrom and Bjork (2014) describe four ways that tests indirectly improve learning.
- Testing improves learning for related but non-tested information. Multiple choice questions improve learning for the concept tested (the correct response). They also improve learning for related concepts because students must retrieve several types of information to answer the question. Students must retrieve information about the correct alternative in a multiple-choice question and determine that the response aligns correctly with information provided in the question stem. Students must also retrieve information about the concepts described in the other alternatives and confirm that rejected responses do not correctly answer the question.
- Tests can improve how students restudy missed items and how they study new material. Tests help students discover when their approach to thinking about content interferes with their learning. They can try new approaches when they study for a retest or when they study new material. The more tests students encounter, the more they benefit from this indirect effect.
- Frequent testing keeps students on task and reduces procrastination. Although students might cram before each test, the frequency of tests forces students to distribute their study (if only as distributed cramming). Psychology researchers have over 60 years of data that document the benefits of distributed practice for learning and long-term retention.
- Feedback from tests makes students aware of the gaps in their knowledge and understanding. They can use this information to selectively focus future study on concepts they don’t fully understand.
Study alone does not provide all the benefits students get from taking a test. Foresight bias is a powerful cognitive illusion that leads students to believe they are better prepared for a test at the end of a study session than they really are. Students overestimate future performance on a test at the end of a study session because the studied information is readily available in immediate memory (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2014). A student may feel confident that he will remember something when he has just reviewed his notes or text. This confidence can evaporate when the student tries to retrieve information in the new context created by a test, when the student no longer has access to notes or printed material. A test helps eliminate foresight bias. Armed with an accurate estimate of what they do and do not know, students can make better choices about how to allocate their study time.
Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Testing facilitates the regulation of subsequent study time. Journal of Memory and Language, 73, 99-115. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2014.03.003
Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D.
Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment
University of West Florida