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“We need to change the way we think about testing. It shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work, but the means by which student’s progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way and redirecting their effort to areas of weakness where more work is needed to achieve proficiency.”

Henry L. Roediger
How Tests Make Us Smarter
 New York Times, Sunday Review, July 18, 2014

This is the second in a four part blog series on how to help students pick up information, keep information, and retrieve information. In essence, this series of blogs will define how to help students learn and possibly perform better on tests. Learning is the act of picking up information, sorting out what is important, putting important information in long term memory, and retrieving the information on demand.  Learning is active and somewhat automatic. Do we remember everything we have ever done? Why do we only remember some things? (This blog series is related to a white paper, which explores these topics in greater detail. If you missed the first blog in the series, you can find it here.)

Along with good teachers, proper technology and other educational materials, students need to be tested. Not only does testing show what the student knows and to be able to do, it also teaches the student how to learn.

Also from Roediger’s How Tests Make Us Smarter: “Various kinds of testing when used appropriately encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge.” Testing arranges the student’s understanding of the content in the brain and makes it easier to remember, or retrieve, the content. In the classroom, exams are most likely formative assessments, which are a major key to learning. And as Eric Shepherd and Janet Godwin wrote in their 2010 paper, “Assessments through the Learning Process:”

When people must provide answers to questions about material they’ve learned, their brains must search their memories and retrieve the information. These memory processes help solidify the learners’ knowledge and help maintain that information in an accessible state for later recall.

Not only did [students who took formative assessment] discover their level of competence, but they also inadvertently reduced their forgetting curve by experiencing some search and retrieval practice.

Again in How Tests Make Us Smarter, Roediger made these key points about the importance of being able to retrieve information:

  • Many studies reveal that much of what we learn is quickly forgotten; a central challenge to learning is finding a way to stem forgetting.
  • Material tested right after [information was digested] was remembered better later.
  • Various kinds of testing, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge.
  • The fact of improved retention after a quiz makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.
  • Testing [allows for] new learning within the context of regular classes and study routines.
  • The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.
  • This isn’t just a matter of teaching students to be better test takers. As learners encounter increasingly complex ideas, a regimen of retrieval practice helps them to form more sophisticated mental structures that can be applied later in different circumstances.

Roediger also wrote that, “Mary Pat Wenderoth, a biology professor at the University of Washington, has found that this benefit holds for women and underrepresented minorities, two groups that sometimes experience a high washout rate in fields like the sciences.”

For students in identified groups that experience lower retention rates, testing techniques help students learn, retrieve information for exams, apply information to other situations, and lower test anxiety.

The key to doing well on an exam is the ability of the student to retrieve the content information he was exposed to.