How test taking can improve learning

(Reading time: 6 minutes)

By test taking I do not mean just standardized multiple-choice tests but any form of examination or self-examination.

More than a hundred years of research

More than a hundred years of research (since 1909) show that taking tests can produce better recall of facts and deeper understanding than education without exams. Researchers say that test practice is much more efficient than rereading, and some of them say it is even better than concept (mind) mapping.

A telling experiment

One group of students (6th, 7th, 8th graders) was presented with the material once and then reviewed it with teachers 3 times. Another group was presented with the material once, but then was quizzed on it 3 times. 8 months later all students were tested on the same material. The group which reviewed the material got an average of C+, while the quizzed group got average  of A-.

Why it is hard to believe

This sounds really strange today –  in times when students who are already tested so much (e.g. in the USA) perform much worse than students from Finland and Singapoore who do not get tested so often. Many people share the opinion that classrooms have turned into test-preparation factories where real, meaningful learning is impossible. Besides, we all know that high-stakes exams cause anxiety in both students and teachers.

This is not about assessment

What this text is about, though, is not tests as assessment tools but tests as learning tools. Two different reasons for testing yield different outcomes.

What test practice for learning improves

Researchers say that test practice for the sake of learning improves long-term retention, even of material which is not directly tested. It is not just about remembering isolated facts but also about boosting deep learning (i.e. drawing inferences, making connections, applying knowledge in a variety of contexts, even unfamiliar ones). Students who take practice tests perform better even in subjects for which such testing is not practised as they improve their general skills of self-regulation. Last but not least, test practice helps students identify what they have not learned.

How it works

Every time we recall a piece of knowledge, our memories change, and this knowledge becomes stronger and more accessible.

Our memories are selective (we cannot and we don’t remember everything). They select pieces of knowledge they rate as useful. If we often have reasons to recall something, our memories treat it as important, and they retain it, believing that we will have reasons to need it in the future.

Here is the neural mechanism behind test taking as a learning tool: compared to simply re-reading, recalling from memory produces higher activity in certain parts of the brain, related to making memories more stable and easy to retrieve. The more active these regions in our brains are during initial learning sessions, the more successful we are at recalling what we study now weeks or months later.

Recalling information is a much more powerful learning event than placing something in our memories. It is indeed the process which makes a memory stick.

Moreover, trying to recall something, we activate many other related to it things and thus make memories about THEM stronger too.

Not all types of tests are created equal

While research shows that all types of tests boost learning, some types seem to be much more useful than others.

Trying to recall from memory (open ended questions) is much better than trying to recognize the correct answer (multiple choice questions). Tasks calling for development and defense of arguments are among the valuable types.

There are deep and shallow tasks and questions, and quite naturally superficial questions lead to superficial knowledge. Scientists have even developed tools to measure the rigour of study materials, class work, tests, etc.

What tests measure is important as it drives instruction. We know that too many teachers “teach to the test”. Even when students prepare for some tests on their own, they prefer to practise the test formats they will be taking and sometimes learn little as these formats are quite shallow. Sometimes it is a much better strategy NOT to use some test formats as learning tools as there is little to learn from them. The only reason why students need to have SOME practice with these is to get familiar with the format.

How tests can be used for learning

It would be good to practise tests both at home and in class. As I have already mentioned, by tests here I mean any form of examination or self-examination.

Students should be taught how to take notes in such ways which allow for testing later. For example, they could produce their own flash cards, etc.

When students are testing themselves, they better struggle and produce their own answers and THEN check them against the correct ones. On more complicated material, they better write their answers down to check them later.

When testing themselves on certain material, students should persist till they get all their concepts correctly, and they better get them correctly more than once.

When tests are administered for assessment, students usually just look at their scores and throw the tests away. Thus they do not take any advantage of tests. It would be really good if they take item-by-item feedback from their teachers.

Some researchers recommend teachers to give back graded tests with a sheet of paper on which they write questions to help students reflect on their performance and preparation. Here is one designed by Marsha Lovett of Carnegie Mellon University: “Based on the estimates above, what will you do differently in preparing for the next test? For example, will you change your study habits or try to sharpen specific skills? Please be specific. Also, what can we do to help?” Such reflection will help student grow more conscious of and responsible for their own learning process.

How this information could be useful to language learners

When you prepare for standardized tests, you should be aware of the fact that some test formats are quite shallow, and by practicing them you cannot improve much your language and academic skills. The reason why you should take a couple of such tests (but not too many) is to familiarize yourself with the format. As an alternative you can practice other, deeper, formats. If your knowledge and skills grow deeper and stronger and you cope with harder tests, you will surely cope on test date with a shallow test format for the purposes of assessment. Besides, sometimes practice test materials are easier than the real tests, and on high stakes tests dates students tend perform worse because of  stress, so they better be more solidly prepared.

Reading new texts, trying to increase text complexity levels and varying topics could be a form of testing how much language you have learned. These increase the chances to come upon vocabulary, grammar structures, ideas and facts related to the culture of the target language you have studied. Rather then reread your lessons many times, use your time to read other texts. The more often you come upon a fact in different contexts, the better your chance to remember it.

I will elaborate on language learning topics in other articles.

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