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The Testing Effect: How to Support Student Learning

While much of the cognitive science literature can be overwhelming for scholars outside the field, a number of learning principles are simple enough to share them straightforwardly with students.  One such example is the testing effect.

The crux of this idea is that people remember better when they are asked to recognize or recall material than when they just read or hear it.  The very act of bringing forward a memory strengthens it, and, generally speaking, the more cognitive effort and the more repetition, the stronger the effect.  (For instance, direct recall is more challenging, but also more beneficial than just recognizing the correct answer from a list.)

Instructors can take advantage of this effect by asking students to recall facts or work problems in class frequently.  This could be done using response systems, whiteboards, or as a low (or no) stakes paper quiz.

But getting students to think metacognitively about the testing effect might have even more impact in how they study.   The effect implies study time should focus mostly on recall, integration, and application of things they want to learn.  This could mean suggesting that students “quiz themselves” regularly using flash cards (or collaboratively using an online tool like quizlet).    In a more mathematical context, it might mean asking students to work through specific example problems or create concept maps as they read or study.   It might also mean encouraging reading strategies like SQ3R  or KWL to frame student reading, or less formally just posing and answering questions about each section.  Instructors can scaffold this process by initially posing questions for reading as a model, then increasingly asking students to pose questions independently.


Contributed by
Mike Meyer
Director, William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning
Michigan Technological University

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