Self-testing is effective study strategy but students seldom choose to do it

Self-testing is more effective than studying for learning, says a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, but students seldom take advantage of this potent technique when preparing for a test.

Students base their choice of strategy on their own judgments of learning (JOL) or their estimates of how well they know their material, often underestimating how much they will forget in a week, according to Jeffrey Karpicke from Purdue University, the author or the article.

In 2 pairs of experiments, the researcher tested student retention of Swahili-English word pairs after self-testing (retrieval practice) or studying. In one pair of computer-based experiments, once college students had successfully recalled a word pair, they could choose (1) to remove the word pair from further practice, (2) choose to study it again or (3) choose to self-test it again. In a companion experiment, the students were simply assigned one of those 3 strategies upon recall of a word pair.

“The experiments identify a compelling metacognitive illusion that occurs during self-regulated learning: Once students can recall an item they tend to believe they have ‘learned’ it. This leads students to terminate practice rather than practice retrieval, a strategy choice that ultimately results in poor retention.”

In the second pair of experiments, students prepared for the test in varying patterns of study and test periods–STSTST or SSSTST or SSSSST. When students did more retrieval practice, they were better able to base their judgments of learning on their growing encoding fluency, the author writes.

“When subjects repeatedly studied without testing they continued to rely on intrinsic difficulty as a cue for JOLs, but when subjects studied and tested in alternating periods they shifted toward greater reliance on internal mnemonic cues (i.e., encoding fluency) as the learning phase progressed.”

Students should be educated about the power of retrieval practice in learning, the author concludes, so that they choose to use this tool more when they regulate their own learning. He observed that many students choose to practice retrieval only when they have reached a level of confidence in their learning.  Retrieval practice earlier in the process would be beneficial and hasten learning, he notes.

“Metacognitive Control and Strategy Selection: Deciding to Practice Retrieval During Learning,” by Jeffrey K. Karpicke, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2009, Volume 138, Number 4, pps 469-486.


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