A few years ago, my son chose for his Halloween costume a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt, black leather jacket and a white mask with no features. I asked him what he was supposed to be and he shrugged his shoulders; he didn’t really know. I told him that as soon as he got to school, someone was going to ask him what he was dressed up as. It was inevitable. And so knowing that, shouldn’t he practice his response to the question he knew was coming? If he practiced it, he would know it and would be prepared to answer the question.
Similarly, my husband Jay, who teaches biology, advises his students to practice writing short answer essays when they are studying for one of his exams. Students know that those questions will be on the test, so why would they not practice and try to write one prior to the exam? The idea is that you should practice what you know you will need to do, and it will help you learn. Surely, if you know something is going to be asked, shouldn’t you be prepared to answer it in the same way?
A recent research article showcased in The New York Times points to the effectiveness of taking practice tests in order to study. Most students study in a very passive way—they highlight their books, or read over class notes. The research suggests that passive studying techniques may be less effective than actually practicing what you will ultimately need to do to show you have learned something. And that is to retrieve the information.
In the study published in the journal Science, researchers found that practicing retrieval led to greater learning gains than did studying with concept mapping. The authors propose that “a retrieval event may actually represent a more powerful learning activity than an encoding event” (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011, p. 1).
Concept mapping is often used by teachers to help students make connections between facts, and is considered to be a very active learning task. Students may be asked to use all of the information they have learned about genetics to create a map showing the major concepts and the connections between them. This activity is thought to be an effective studying tool. The recent work by Karpicke & Blunt (2011), however, suggests otherwise.
Even though self-testing has been shown to have tremendous value, many students ignore it when they are preparing for exams. When Henry Roediger of Washington University asked students how they study he found that “they think they know it because they have read it so many times, but they haven’t practiced the skill they’ll need on the test, and that is retrieval.” Roediger & Karpicke (2006) found that testing students immediately after they had studied a passage promoted much better long-term retention than if a student simply studied the passage over and over. And yet it was the students who repeatedly studied who had more confidence in their ability to recall details later.
Not only is self-testing and retrieval shown to be beneficial for learning, so is the practice of retrieval even when you think you already know something. If you study the capitals of the countries of the world and you think that you have mastered the fact that the capital of Turkey is Ankara, should you ditch that card? No, you should leave it in your stack and keep practicing retrieval. To have really good long-term learning you need to keep coming back and retrieving information, even if you think you know it.
The idea that self-testing drives learning is key to the efficacy of Prep-U, an online quizzing tool where students can take practice quizzes relating to their course content. Prep-U is an adaptive system and provides students with questions at exactly the right difficulty level for them. Students answer questions one at a time and must submit their responses before seeing the next question. In this way, students have to really think about the question and to commit to an answer before moving. Moreover, even if a student answers a question correctly one time, they may still see the same question, or a similar question, again in a later quiz. In this way, students keep practicing and retrieving information, and learning is supported. The effects of self-testing are also thought to be enhanced by feedback on whether or not answers are correct. Prep-U delivers this feedback, thus providing students with the opportunity to re-study areas of weakness and come back and take another quiz.
Used as an augmentation for any course, Prep-U can harness the power of using testing for learning, and it can encourage students to study in the most efficient and beneficial way for maximizing long-term learning.
Karpicke, J.D., & Blunt, J.R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 772, 772-5.
Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (2006) Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.