Testing feedback: Hint, hint … works better than ‘here’s answer’
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Testing feedback: Hint, hint … works better than ‘here’s answer’

Someone gets an answer wrong on a test. Do you?

      A. Review the material if enough trainees get the same answer wrong.


      B. Review all the answers in the next session.


      C. During review, ask those who got the answer wrong to try again, giving them hints.


    D. Tell the person to restudy the material.

What the research shows
Before we give you the answer, let’s take a look at three research insights:

  • The testing effect: Testing at regular, increasing intervals makes training stick better.
  • Forced retrieval: Making someone dig an answer out of their own memory improves their later retention of that material. The kicker: Forcing retrieval of memories improves retention even if the person fails to remember. How many times have you remembered something much later – and the struggle made it easier to remember it the next time?
  • Forking paths: Testing without feedback produces two future effects.(1) What was remembered on the test becomes a stronger memory.

    (2) What’s forgotten drops off the radar screen altogether. But there’s a further insight: Subsequent study will produce training gains, but at a weaker rate than forcing retrieval.
    How this impacts training

Training insights:

  1. Feedback after testing is crucial. Even if your charges study the material afterward, it won’t do them as much good as feedback with you.
  2. Giving people the answers doesn’t work. People tune out, or learn you’ll tell them. They must struggle, at least for a time.
  3. If trainees can’t remember, your second-best solution trainees should restudy the source material. That will strengthen all their learning, just not as well as answering test questions.

Note: These insights are true whether we’re talking a written test or on-the-job training.

What you can do
Here are some suggestions:

  1. 1. Don’t give people the correct answer if they don’t want it. “Wait, don’t tell me yet” is what you want to hear. If necessary, have them get back to you at another time. (Tell them not to google it.)
  2. Offer a hint. Review part of the learning if necessary. Ideally, ask them to think it through themselves: “OK, what’s the next question you need to ask to find out customer’s needs?” If they logically come to the answer, they own it.
  3. Wait for it. This can be excruciating for some managers. But it’s crucial. One caution: Most people will tend to wait the same amount of time. People will soon learn the rhythm of feedback sessions, that is, how long you’ll wait. And they’ll wait that long.
  4. Pick and choose your battles. This is an involved process, and can drive everyone crazy if used too often. This is really for the most important learning.

Sources: Kornell, Nate, et al. Why tests appear to prevent forgetting: A distribution-based bifurcation model, Journal of Memory and Language 65 (2011), pp. 85-97.
Note: “C” is the best answer; “D” is second best.

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