How we learn, or, getting testy

The New York Times reports on research suggesting that if you really want to learn, you should take a test.  Pam Belluck’s article cites work by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt recently published in ScienceExpress (linked article is on Scribd).

There's more than one meaning for "battery."

The researchers looked at “elaborative studying” (in this case, working from a text to create your own concept map) and “retrieval practice”–writing a freeform essay after reading the material.  In the latter case, you’re writing without the material; hence, you’re retrieving information from memory.

Here’s the researchers’ abstract:

Educators rely heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying, while activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are used less frequently.

Here, we show that practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.

The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across texts identical to those commonly found in science education. The advantage of retrieval practice was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences. The advantage of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.

This is is sort of thing that’ll end up on the evening news: “Researcher Says Take Tests, Don’t Study.”  The reality is more nuanced, of course.

As Karpiche and Blunt say, “It is beyond question that activities that promote effective encoding, known as elaborative study tasks, are important for learning.”  What they were questioning, in part, is the notion that retrieval of information is “neutral and uninfluential” in the learning process.

Because each act of retrieval changes memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning.

I’m sorry that most reports about this study use the word “test,” one of those terms (like “training”) that’s a kind of conceptual rent-a-truck; people load them up with all sorts of meaning.

Try thinking outside the box.

I know I tend to.  And despite knowing better, when I hear “test,” I have a hard time not picturing the multiple-guess, factoid-shackled artifact that so often is labeled as a knowledge nugget.

In the world of learning at work, we don’t always consider that “test” can refer to something other than a mid-semester quiz.   This, despite the fact that the workplace is full of other, more robust examples of testing.

Like load tests on a server.  Stress tests for a product.  Market testing for a new product (or for a media campaign).  Engineering testing aimed at continuous improvement in a process.

Even if you’re aiming at (allegedly) objective assessment, you can shoot for more than recall of discrete bits of information.  So in Karpicke and Blunt’s research, the final testing  involved both verbatim questions (for “conceptual knowledge stated directly in the text”) and inference questions that required the learner to relate different points in the original content.

It’s interesting that participants in the student couldn’t predict whether their retrieval practice would help them learn:

Students predicted that repeated studying would produce the best long-term retention and that practicing retrieval would produce the worst retention, even though the opposite was true.

One version of the study, as part of the “final test,” had students create a concept map.  Once again, students who engaged in retrieval practice produced better concept maps (by which I assume “more accurate ones”) than did the students whose study included creating concept maps in the first place.

CC-licensed images:
ASVAB scores by Krista Kennedy.
Test-box photo by Dave Blaisdale.


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