A recent research study published in the online journal Science revealed that testing doesn’t just assess what we know, it may actually help us learn.
The research found that students who studied material and then tested on it retained about 50 percent more knowledge a week later than students who used other study methods. The other study methods included repeatedly studying the material and creating diagrams of what the student had learned. These are both popular study methods, but seem to give students only the illusion that they have learned the material better than they have.
The study supported the belief that activities, such as test taking, that require students to retrieve information resulted in more meaningful learning than other elaborate study techniques such as concept mapping, leading researchers to conclude that having students engage in exercises that require information retrieval is an effective technique in promoting conceptual learning in science education.
How It Works
Why testing leads to better learning is not entirely understood. Some experts believe that testing may help students learn because when students take tests they are able to recognize gaps in their knowledge and revisit the concepts, enabling them to retrieve and organize information in a way that works for them. It may be that by being forced to recall the information, the brain organizes it and creates cues that can be recognized later. Others believe that recalling the information through testing makes it easier to recall later. Or perhaps the effort it takes to recall information helps to embed it in the learner’s memory.
Interestingly, researchers found that studying and using diagramming techniques gave students the illusion that they had learned the material better than they had while those students who were tested did not believe they had learned the material as well as they did. In reality, the opposite was true. Students who studied the material or diagrammed it may have assumed that they understood the material better simply because they repeated it. Students who had read a passage and tested on it actually retained significantly more.
What It Means
The study confirms that information retrieval, through methods such as testing, can be a valuable tool for producing greater gains in learning complex science concepts and is indeed an effective means to promote conceptual learning. Online learning, with its frequent knowledge checks and other learning activities, also stimulates the retrieval process and can actually improve the retention of information. The study also indicates that the mechanisms used to retrieve knowledge contribute to learning, painting a picture of retrieval as more than simply a recitation of stored knowledge. It is the act of retrieving and reconstructing the knowledge that enhances learning. Viewing learning this way may lead to new educational activities that include knowledge retrieval processes.