Practice testing has been proven to be one of the most effective learning techniques. In fact, the cognitive psychology term “testing effect” was coined several decades ago to refer to the finding that taking practice tests on studied material promotes greater subsequent learning and retention on a final test as compared to relying on more common study strategies. Because of the effectiveness of this learning technique, many educators are incorporating more practice testing into their instruction. However, since the term “practice testing” refers to various retrieval-based learning activities that occur under various conditions, it can be hard to know how to put this technique to use most effectively.
To help educators get the most out of practice testing, three researchers, Olusola Adesope and Narayankripa Sundararajan of Washington State University and Dominic Trevisan of Simon Fraser University, conducted a meta-analysis of the current research available on the effects of practice testing to determine how the magnitude of the effect differs based on different factors. They analyzed a total of 118 articles involving 15,472 participants and published their findings in February of 2017 in a paper called Rethinking the use of tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing.
The paper explores a variety of interesting information about practice testing, also referred to as retrieval practice. Here’s a summary of some of their most useful findings for educators looking to use this technique to improve student achievement.
Which practice test formats work best?
- Mixed format practice tests (which incorporate more than one question type) proved to be the most effective, even if the practice test and the final test only had one question type in common. The researchers postulated that this was likely due to the use of interleaving, which requires students to load different cognitive processes and resolve the interference between them, leading to better long-term retention and transfer.
- Multiple-choice practice tests emerged as the most effective single format. The researchers discuss that this may be because multiple-choice questions are less cognitively demanding, and research suggests that less demanding retrieval practice activities promote stronger retention because they allow students to focus all of their cognitive energy on a simple task.
- The benefits of practice testing were greater when the practice test and the final test formats were identical rather than dissimilar (assuming the practice test and final test utilized only one question type). This is due to a phenomenon known as Transfer-Appropriate Processing, which suggests that memories are easier to retrieve when the retrieval process is similar to how they were encoded during an initial learning activity.
How many practice tests should students take? How much time should pass between the practice test and the real test for maximum impact?
- Conducting several short practice sessions distributed over time enables long-term storage. This method utilizes distributed practice, a high-utility learning technique.
- One full-length practice test was proven more effective than taking two or more full-length practice tests within a short timeframe.
- For maximum effect on the final test, the full-length practice test should be taken between one and six days before the final test.
How helpful is feedback?
Based on the research, a practice test followed by feedback did not yield significantly higher testing effects than practice tests without feedback. This does not necessarily mean that receiving feedback does not aid students in retention, because there are several individual studies that show that practice testing plus feedback is more beneficial than practice testing alone. But, there is not enough research that examines the different types of feedback and how that feedback is given to determine the true effectiveness of feedback. Therefore, students can be encouraged to use practice testing as a learning technique whether they will receive feedback or not.
Which types of students benefit most from practice testing?
- The studies considered in this meta-analysis mostly used samples of postsecondary students, but a significant amount used samples of primary or secondary students.
- Secondary students benefited the most from practice testing, followed by primary students, and then by postsecondary students.
- Practice testing was highly effective as a learning technique for all three groups.
How can this information be applied in the classroom?
Based on their findings, the researchers discuss several ways that educators can incorporate more retrieval practice into their classrooms:
- Increase the number of low-stakes quizzes on material students need to retain.
- Incorporate more formative assessment questions into lectures.
- Increase wait time after asking the class a practice question. Instead of calling on the first student as soon as their hand is raised, wait long enough to allow all students to process the questions and come up with a response so that all gain the cognitive benefit of the retrieval practice.
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