We’re all familiar with the learning benefits of tests and quizzes – the so-called testing effect. Research shows that assessments aren’t just a way to evaluate learners’ progress – they’re also a learning experience that strengthens memory.
Many learning professionals therefore suggest using quizzes early and often to reinforce learned material. But can you overdo it? Is there a tipping point where the number of tests becomes detrimental to learning?
Psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin investigated the effects of frequent testing in a college course, assigning a brief online quiz at the beginning of every class.
They found surprisingly far-reaching results. Not only did students perform better in the course when daily testing was used, they also performed better in future courses.
Students in a college psychology course were asked to bring a laptop or tablet to every lecture. At the start of each class, students were assigned an eight-question online quiz that covered material from the readings and the previous lecture.
Once students submitted their answers, they received instant feedback. If a student got a question wrong, the online quiz program would reveal the correct answer and the reason why their answer was wrong.
By the end of the course, students had taken 26 quizzes in preparation for the final. On the exam, they scored roughly 6 percent – or half a letter grade – higher than students who attended the traditional course.
That result alone is impressive. But the researchers found that the benefits of regular testing weren’t limited to the psychology course.
Students in the experimental group actually started to get better grades in their other classes as well. And in the following semester, their average GPA increased at a significantly higher rate than the students from the traditional-instruction group.
The researchers suggested that, in addition to the power of the testing effect, the larger, long-term benefits came from learned self-discipline. Students in the experimental group knew they were being tested every class, so they were motivated to engage in the readings and pay attention during lectures. These positive habits spread into their other courses and became part of their academic routine during the next semester. They saw the benefits and continued with the positive behavior.
Load up on the quizzes. While it’s possible that you can give too many quizzes, this study didn’t find any evidence of it. And it suggests that most learners would benefit from more quizzes and assessments than they’re currently getting. You may not want to test your learners every training session. But you can build short, fast-paced assessments into each learning experience. Brief quizzes, writing assignments, role plays, and discussions can all serve as tools to get trainees thinking critically and accessing new learning.
Provide quick, personalized feedback. As in the study, provide trainees with feedback as quickly as possible following an assessment. Don’t just tell them what they got wrong but include why. This will help them identify their weak points and correct misconceptions.
Help learners see the benefits. When students in the study saw how beneficial their new study and learning habits were, they continued to use them. Similarly, if you help your learners see how beneficial new skills can be for their career, they will invest more deeply in the training program.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e79774. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079774
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