For many, the word “test” conjures feelings of dread. If it’s not standardized testing, then it’s the futility of those midnight hours spent reading and rereading textbook passages only to forget it all by the next morning when faced with rows of multiple-choice answer bubbles and the yawning white space of essay questions. However, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis now believe that the best way to prepare for tests is with, well, tests.
The key, of course, is how these tests are conducted and used. Traditionally, tests are only used as assessment tools for teachers to assign grades, but in their purest form, tests ask students to show and practice what they know. They require students to recall information and apply it – a vital but often overlooked part of learning.
“A lot of education you think of as trying to stuff the kid’s head with knowledge,” says Henry Roediger, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, “and that’s part of it, but the other part is being able to use knowledge when you need it. We normally don’t give kids practice at that.”
Frequent, low-stakes testing can actually help students learn information more thoroughly and remember it longer. “Students prefer to study things repeatedly, and that gets you so far,” Roediger says, “but if you try to retrieve information, whether you get it right or you get it wrong and someone corrects you, you remember things much better on a later test. This is called the retrieval practice effect, or the testing effect.”
The Road to Research
Roediger and his colleague Mark McDaniel, also a professor of psychology, first noticed the testing effect more than 20 years ago. At the time, they were studying the ways people encode information to improve memory. As part of their experimental design, one of the participant groups took a quiz after reading some information, while others were asked to restudy the material. Over and over again, the group who took an initial quiz did better on the final test.
“The initial quiz was just another measure,” McDaniel explains, “but we found out it had an effect on final memory. We started to believe that retrieval was one of the most potent ways to improve memory and retention.”
When McDaniel came to Washington University in 2004, he and Roediger wanted to take this research to the next level by applying for grants to further test their new theories. They teamed with fellow psychology professor Kathleen McDermott and received their first grants from the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis and the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education for their preliminary laboratory research on retrieval practice. Their results were interesting enough in the lab that the group wanted to see how they would fare in the classroom, but in order to do so, they needed a partner school and classrooms in which to test their ideas.
“It was actually really fortuitous,” McDaniel remarks. Upon arriving in St. Louis, McDaniel reconnected with an old friend. This friend’s wife, Patrice Bain, taught at Columbia Middle School in Columbia, Illinois, and when she heard about McDaniel’s research, she immediately offered her assistance.
“She was already using retrieval practice in her classroom by giving the children prequizzes before her lecture and then quizzing them again after her lecture,” McDaniel says. “She was convinced that this was helping her students on their final exams, but she didn’t have any data.”
Bain became an advocate for the research team’s work, helping them make their case before the principal, superintendent, and other teachers in the school, and hers was, ultimately, the first classroom in which they set up their experiment. With this school partnership, Roediger, McDaniel, and McDermott received their second grant from the Institute of Education Sciences. The collaboration has since spread to nearby Columbia High School.
In the Classroom
“At the beginning, it was pretty clear that some of the school administrators were hesitant to participate because they thought outsiders were going to come in and tell them how to do their jobs,” McDaniel says. “But we work in a really collaborative manner with participating teachers. We used all the materials that the teachers were already using and tried to introduce studies into the classroom without disrupting it.”
Setting up a well-controlled psychology experiment in functioning classrooms is no easy task. McDaniel explains, “We take all of the material the kids are responsible for and break it into different subsets. Some of the subsets get quizzed, and some get presented for restudy, and some are our control material that the teacher doesn’t mention outside of her usual emphasis. And this all has to be counterbalanced across different classrooms, students, and semesters.”
In addition, ongoing debates around high-stakes and standardized tests give the very idea of testing a negative reputation among many teachers. In fact, the knee-jerk reaction from educators was so strong that the researchers have considered renaming their effect. “We were going to call the effect ‘Test-Enhanced Learning,’ but we now often call it ‘Retrieval-Enhanced Learning’ just to avoid the word ‘test,’” McDaniel says. “A lot of educators, they just hear that word and they flare up.”
Pooja Agarwal first joined the project as a research assistant in 2005, shortly after graduating from Washington University. Now a postdoctoral researcher, she manages and analyzes data and acts as a key liaison between the teachers and administrators in the Columbia school district and the leading researchers. As Agarwal explains, teachers quickly found that WUSTL-initiated retrieval practice bore little resemblance to high-stakes standardized tests. In fact, making quizzes low-stakes or no-stakes was an essential part of the experiment.
“Many of the teachers we work with say that they already give quizzes, but they always take them for a grade. So we’re trying to change that mindset into one that focuses on retrieving for the sake of learning – that is the most novel idea for many teachers,” she says. “When a quiz is used as learning strategy, there are fewer consequences and less stress. The quizzes help students figure out what they got right, what they got wrong, and what they need to continue studying. And the teachers themselves can figure out what concepts they might need to go over again.”
In addition to being low-stakes, McDaniel adds that frequency is an important aspect of this type of retrieval practice. “Usually they just test for a grade and cover a whole body of material,” he says. However, this research suggests that testing every day, at the end of each lesson, improves performance on later tests such as midterms, finals, and even comprehensive finals that cover all the material over the last year. In order to facilitate these quick, frequent, low-stakes quizzes, the researchers furnished teachers with electronic clickers for students to use.
Some parents and teachers worried that more frequent testing would make students anxious, but actually the opposite has been true. Since 2006, the participating students have been surveyed to see if they thought retrieval practice helped them learn, how it made them feel, and whether or not they liked it. A whopping 92% of the 1,227 surveyed middle-school and high-school students reported that the quizzes helped them learn, and over 70% reported that the retrieval practice made them less anxious.
Agarwal explains, “Since the quizzes help with learning, they don’t have to study as much for exams. They don’t bomb exams like they used to.”
responded that retrieval practice
helped them learn.
72% reported being less
anxious or nervous about tests.
88% of students surveyed said
they study the same amount of time
or less compared to classes
without retrieval practice.
Beyond grades, these results can have a deeper impact on impressionable middle-school students. “By middle school, some kids start to think of themselves as not good learners, and as a consequence, they may be discouraged in the classroom and start to withdraw or act out,” McDaniel says. “But having them do retrieval practice, helping them do better on tests and quizzes can perhaps show them that they can learn. They can be successful.”
And apparently, the kids really liked the quizzes. “It breaks up their classes,” Roediger explains. “Some days our experimental design wouldn’t call for them to be quizzed with the clickers, and the teachers told us that the kids would complain.”
Word is getting out about the testing effect. Kathleen McDermott has begun using the quizzing technique in her classroom with Washington University psychology students, and upon hearing about their colleagues’ research, Andrew Sobel, a professor of international and area studies, and Doug Larsen, an assistant professor of neurology in the Medical School, have begun regularly quizzing their students as well. Despite fears that their teacher ratings would plummet if they began giving frequent quizzes, McDermott says her students enjoy it, and that the technique also has many indirect benefits.
“I give a quiz to my students every day in class, so attendance is higher,” she says. “It makes people read the material before class and encourages them to pay attention or ask questions when they don’t understand something because they’re going to be quizzed on it at the end.”
Given their impressive results, the team has higher goals for their research. Roediger and McDaniel teamed up with writer Peter Brown to put out a book on the research titled Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which was released in March 2014. The book includes information about retrieval practice and other counterintuitive strategies for learning.
The researchers also have been hard at work on a self-contained guidebook that can be distributed to educators across the globe who are interested in integrating retrieval practice into their lesson plans. The guidebook, which will be available this summer, is an easy 10 pages long. “It’s short enough not to be off-putting, but long enough to answer basic questions a teacher might have,” Roediger says.
Agarwal adds, “As opposed to a journal or article that reviews research and makes convincing arguments and shows powerful effects, the guidebook will be focused on implementation.”
Because retrieval practice as a learning strategy works across subject matters, the guidebook will be of use for a wide array of teachers and educational contexts. “Most education research is subject-specific,” Roediger says, “but retrieval practice is general purpose. We found it helped in social studies, every level of science, history, and vocabulary. The only areas that didn’t respond as well were English grammar and math, but math was our fault. They do problem sets all the time, so us giving one or two more didn’t really matter.”
In fact, Roediger thinks the technique could be valuable far beyond the formal classroom setting. “We want to reach as many teachers as possible with this research,” he says, “but we hope it will be used across many different avenues, including any training in business or the military – any field that is concerned with learning, which is just about everybody.”