Please sir, can we do more tests?

What are the most effective learning strategies? 

Look the following 10 learning strategies. By yourself, or with colleagues, put them in order of what you believe to be their effectiveness for helping students learn.

  1. Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study mixes different kinds of material, within a single session
  2. Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  3. Practice testing : self-testing or taking practice tests on to be learned material
  4. Distributed practice: implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  5. Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  6. Rereading: restudying text material again after an initial reading
  7. Highlighting and underlining: marking potentially important portions of to be learned materials while reading
  8. Summarization: writing summaries (of various lengths) of-to-be learned texts
  9. Keyword mnemonic: using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  10. Imagery for text: attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening

Taken from ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox – Study Strategies to Boost Learning’ by John Dunlowsky.

A review of these strategies by cognitive and educational researchers came up with the following results: learning strategies

What are the most ineffective learning strategies?

As you can see, the strategies that were given a low utility were re-reading, highlighting, summarization, keyword mnemonic and imagery for text. Unfortunately, the first two are very popular with students, probably because it leads to a rising familiarity & fluency that gives them a level of comfort. However, in reality, it only really provides the ‘illusion of mastery’ (McDaniel, Roediger, Brown). Re-reading, in particular, is popular but this repetition is inefficient and time consuming, and actually doesn’t result in durable memory. In fact, it can lead students to deceive themselves about how securely they have learned the material. Having said that, the impact of this strategy can be increased with a few tweaks: If a student takes the time to consider the underlying ideas, meaning & links to other knowledge whilst they read, it is more likely to be retained.

What is the evidence that retrieval practice is effective?

The strategy that Dunlowsky and his colleagues identified as being most effective is practice testing, or as others call it, retrieval practice. There is now an enormous amount of research that shows that this can have a huge affect on student performance. Joe Kirby outlined these studies in his blogpost Three Applications of Cognitive Science: The New York Times reported on the ‘testing effect’ in November 2013. They described an experiment in which 901 students in a popular introduction to psychology course at the University of Texas took ‘a short quiz in each class on their computer. The quizzes would be short and personalized — seven questions that the entire class would answer, and one tailored to each student, usually a question from another quiz that he or she got wrong. In place of a final exam, grades were based on cumulative quiz scores. By the end of the course…the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams.’ There was also a marked improvement in attendance and study habits, as students had to be at the lectures and needed to do the reading.

In a July 2014 article from the New York Times, Henry L. Roediger III (professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author of “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning) describes a study he published with Jeffrey D. Karpicke, a psychologist at Purdue, that assessed how well students remembered material they had read: ‘After an initial reading, students were tested on some passages by being given a blank sheet of paper and asked to recall as much as possible. They recalled about 70 percent of the ideas. Other passages were not tested but were reread, and thus 100 percent of the ideas were re-exposed. In final tests given either two days or a week later, the passages that had been tested just after reading were remembered much better than those that had been reread. He goes on to outline another study with a middle school class in Columbia Ill, that found the benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.

Why is retrieval practice effective?

We quickly forget most of what we’ve just heard or read, but retrieval practice can interrupt the process of forgetting and have the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again. Roediger explains ‘When students are tested, they are required to retrieve knowledge from memory. Much educational activity, such as lectures and textbook readings, is aimed at helping students acquire and store knowledge. Various kinds of testing, though, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge. The fact of improved retention after a quiz — called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect — makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.’

Furthermore, giving feedback strengthens retention more than testing alone does. Giving students corrective feedback after tests keeps them from incorrectly retaining material they have misunderstood and produces better learning of the correct answers. Taking into account that Hattie in Visible Learning gives feedback an effect size of 0.73 (well above the hinge point of 0.4), retrieval practice can play a very powerful role in telling a student ‘how they are going?’ (Hattie 2007) and provide the teacher with valuable diagnostic information to inform their advice on the next steps. However, a teacher needs to be wary of giving the feedback too quickly before the student has sufficiently searched for the answer as the learner can come to depend on the presence of correction.

What does retrieval practice look like?

Students gain the most benefits from retrieval practice that is not stressful, blended into the fabric of lessons and of low stakes. This is in contrast to make or break standardized tests. Tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short answer test, or simply practice with flashcards, appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests, although these do also have positive benefits. This is because they will often have to work harder to recall information rather than just recognize the correct answer. In fact, effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention as when the mind has to work the learning sticks better.

I have incorporated several retrieval practice strategies into my day to day lessons. These include inserting a missing bit of information of a statement, supplying the answer to questions, multiple choice quizzes and ‘write to learn’ exercise that require the students to write a paragraph about a particular issue from memory. I often use, which students access on their phones or ipads. After studying a particular aspect of a unit I will give a quiz that requires students to fill in a particular piece of information, such as the one below that tested students on their knowledge of international relations in the 1920s: Short answer Q

At the end of a unit I like to give a multiple choice quiz that has one option that is not quite accurate, sometimes testing a common misconception. My rationale for this is that the students have to really think about every option, testing it against what they know, reasoning out the likelihood that a particular answer is valid. The students actually find it quite tough. Here is an example question for an IBDP class:

MCQ example

Here is an example used in an English lesson by Joe Kirby: English test eg

Another way to make retrieval practice a feature of our lessons is to design units or schemes of work that have focuses that overlap or provide opportunities for comparisons with learning from earlier in the year. Michael Fordham in his blogpost ‘Making History Stick Part 2: Switching the scale between overview and depth’ says ‘In order to space retrieval, it is necessary to structure the curriculum in such a way that knowledge of the prior periods studied is recalled at a later point.’ He outlines a series of lessons lasting about six week that would would examine the medieval era in overview and in depth. Each lesson would build on the previous, requiring recall of knowledge and concepts learned earlier. He explains it this way:

‘Switching the scale here between the macro and the micro does, I think, offer one way in which we can space retrieval of historical knowledge, allowing pupils to go back to and draw upon prior knowledge: this either involves using knowledge of particular examples to make sense of bigger trends and developments, or the converse. In either case, this retrieval needs to be made explicit.’

How can students use retrieval practice?

Dunlowsky (Sept 2013) gives the following advice on how students could incorporate retrieval practice into their study routine:

  • As they read a chapter in their textbook they should be encouraged to make flashcards, with the key term on one side and the correct answer on the other.
  • Leave room near places where they have taken notes for practice testing later e.g. covering up parts with their hand and then attempting to write the key idea or concept in the space
  • Write down their answers when they are testing themselves and then compare with the answer
  • They should ‘get it right’ on more than one occasion and not be satisfied when they can recall it from memory once

Conclusion There are many benefits of retrieval practice for the teacher and the student, such as giving each a more accurate sense of what they know and don’t know, as well as the strengthening of learning that accrues from retrieval practice. This can also have a positive impact on student motivation as it can give them more autonomy over their studying as they don’t necessarily have to always rely on the teacher for the next steps. In addition, repeated retrieval can so embed knowledge and skills that they become reflexive, and provide the necessary foundation for the higher level skills of analysis, synthesis and creative problem solving. This also makes it easier to retain even greater amounts of subject knowledge as newly learned material has more in the long term memory that it can connect with. With all these benefits in mind why aren’t more teachers  using retrieval practice?


1. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham

2. How tests make us smarter by Henry L. Roediger publiched in the NYT July 2014.

3. The Power of Feedback by Hattie and Timberley

4. Strengthening the Student Tool box by John Dunlowsky. 5.Make it Stick (The Science of Successful Learning) by Roediger, McDaniel & Brown

5. ‘Making History Stick Part 2: Switching the scale between overview and depth’

6. Three Applications of Cognitive Science:

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