What Is the Testing Effect and How Can You Apply It in Your Approach to Educating?

The testing effect is a vital strategy in the facilitation of the retention of information of your students. Its also known as retrieval practice and investigates ways that you, as an educator, can ensure your students are able to retain ideas and information long term.

As a teacher, you are responsible for ensuring that the courses you design facilitate more effective learning from your students. You need to ask the question: how do you study - a conversation few educators open themselves up to with their students.

What is the testing effect?

The testing effect was explored in depth through a studying experiment which was published by Karpicke and Blunt in 2011.

In the experiment, a short passage of text was presented to be read and three strategies were developed for study methods.

Strategy 1: The student spends five minutes reading the passage and is then finished.

Strategy 2:  The students spends five minutes reading the passage. They then take a short break, before re-reading the passage. They repeat this twice more, so that they’ve finally read the passage a total of four times. 

Strategy 3: The student spends five minutes reading the passage. They then put the text away and spend ten minutes writing down everything that they can remember on a blank piece of paper. They repeat this strategy – read the passage again for five minutes, and spend another ten minutes writing down what is remembered on a blank piece of paper.

The experiment then asked students two questions one week after their attempt to study the passage.

Firstly, they were asked to recall ideas from the passage they’d read a week later. Strategy 3 revealed itself to be the most effective approach.

The second question was factual. Instead of inference questions, students were asked to apply the knowledge they had gained to new situations.

Which approach to studying outperformed the rest?

Strategy 3, proving that not only did this approach ensure more effective memorization, it also allowed students to apply their knowledge to new contexts - the ultimate goal of learning.

It allows students to apply their knowledge to new contexts - the ultimate goal of learning.

Why is the testing effect important for educators?

Our long-term memory has essentially unlimited capacity. But in order to use information that we have stored in our long-term memory, it is necessary to recall, or retrieve, it.

Every time you retrieve information, you build new connections between synapses in your brain, strengthening the connections and consolidating the memories. This, in turn, enables you to more easily access the information in the future.

It’s not enough to have your students read information and assume they understand and remember what they’ve consumed. The same applies to a lecture - listening is not synonymous with mastery.

Listening is not synonymous with mastery.

While reading and re-reading may allow for immediate recall, and give an illusion of mastery, for longer-term retention you also need to be able to retrieve the information.

The question now remains, how do you apply this strategy to your own course design?

The testing effect is covered in the second module of the Teaching and Learning Strategies for Higher Education online short course, presented by Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning in collaboration with GetSmarter and in association with HarvardX.

The module, titled How learning works, will help you understand the ways in which you can apply the testing effect to your classes as well as guide you through the exploration of other foundational principles of pedagogy.

Want to find out more about how you can become a more effective educator with Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, in association with HarvardX? Visit the course page and improve your approach to teaching and learning.

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