Pre-testing on new material leads to higher scores later

iStock_000019142594XSmallTesting is often seen by teachers as detracting from meaningful learning, but a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology says the reverse is true. Testing actually stimulates and enhances student learning even when students get the answers wrong, the researchers say.

In a series of experiments, undergraduate students who took pre-tests on an unfamiliar 2-page text and then had time to study, performed better on a final test than students who did not take a pre-test and had an extra 2 minutes to study. In one of the experiments, students who took pre-tests performed better even when tested a week later.

“This finding suggests that using tests as learning events in educational settings could have lasting benefits for learners’ content acquisition, and that tests should be considered a potent learning opportunity, rather than simply as an assessment measure,” write the researchers from the University of California-Irvine and Williams College.

“The current experiments show that one way to prepare learners for future knowledge acquisition is to ask them to answer test questions before studying, even if they are unsuccessful in their attempts.”

Beyond supporting the use of pre-tests for learning purposes, the study has implications for standardized testing as well. Testing enhances learning only so long as test takers are given an opportunity to learn the information, the researchers write. Aligning standardized tests with curriculum could potentially enhance the usefulness of both the testing and the instruction that followed it, they write.

In some of the experiments, participants got as many as 95% of the pre-test questions wrong. In previous research, testing has been shown to be beneficial when questions are answered correctly.

How does it work?
So, how does answering a test question wrong enhance learning? One explanation is that pre-test questions direct students’ attention to information that is most important.

But, researchers of this study say that testing has advantages beyond helping students support the organization of knowledge. The retrieval process itself may boost learning by strengthening the retrieval routes between the question and the correct answer and encouraging deep processing.

The 2-page text used in all of the experiments was based on an essay by Oliver Sacks about a patient who developed color blindness as a result of brain damage. Students were randomly assigned to a group that was pre-tested or given a few additional minutes to study the text (10 minutes instead of 8 minutes) before final testing.

The text read by both groups had italicized or bolded words or sentences to draw attention to material that would be tested. The researchers wanted to determine whether pre-testing merely drew attention to important material or if there were other factors at play in any possible benefits.

The groups in experiments 1-3 included 61, 63, 64 students, respectively. The pre-test students answered 5 questions taken from the text before studying it, and then all students answered 10 questions after they had 8 or 10 minutes to study the text.

Questions were fill-in-the-blank or short free-response items. In the final test, pre-test students in experiments 1-3, answered 75%, 71% and 82% of questions correctly compared with 56%, 54% and 64% scored by the extended-study students.

Bolding key phrases
In experiment 4 (158 students), the final test was given after a 1-week delay. Pre-test students again scored higher than the extended study group. Previous research had shown that pre-testing led to better retention but that was in the context of successful testing (more correct answers), the researchers write.

In this experiment, key phrases in the text were bolded for only 5 of the 10 questions. Pre-test students performed better than the extended-study students on the bolded material. Pre-test students averaged 55% questions answered correctly 1 week later while the extended-study students averaged 45%. There was no significant difference between the 2 groups on questions based on the unbolded material in testing a week later.

In experiment 5 (76 students), researchers added a 3rd group of students that memorized questions. The students were asked to memorize the test questions so they could test another student and told to pay careful attention to where the blank fell in the question.

Students who pre-tested outperformed students who memorized the questions in the final test, the researchers report, while students who memorized the questions outperformed the extended-study group. The pre-test students averaged scores of 90% on the final test; students who memorized questions beforehand averaged 78% and the extended-study students 63%.

“Researchers studying the cognitive underpinnings of testing have argued that testing should be considered a strategy for knowledge acquisition above and beyond its utility as a measure of current knowledge,” the researchers write.

Teachers could easily use questions that commonly follow textbook chapters as pre-tests, the researchers write. Teachers are increasingly using assessments to guide instruction, they note, but this study shows that the process of testing itself enhances the learning process.

“The Pretesting Effect: Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning?” by Lindsey Richland et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2009, Volume 15, Number 3, pp. 243-257.

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