Testing effect

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The testing effect is the finding that long-term memory is often increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information.[1] The effect is also sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, practice testing, or test-enhanced learning.[2][3][4] Retrieval practice may be the best way to refer to the testing effect because the benefits of retrieval-related testing are not limited to tests. It can be more broad like flash cards or quizzes.The testing effect on memory should be distinguished from more general practice effects, defined in the APA Dictionary of Psychology (2007) as "any change or improvement that results from practice or repetition of task items or activities." The term testing effect is also sometimes used in a more general sense; The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (2003) defines a testing effect as "any effect of taking tests on the respondents, a typical example being test sophistication." Whereas psychologists who develop tests for personality and intelligence want to avoid practice effects, cognitive psychologists working with educators have begun to understand how to take advantage of tests—not as an assessment tool, but as a teaching/learning tool.[5]

It is useful for people to test their knowledge of the to-be-remembered material during the learning process, instead of only reading or otherwise passively studying the material. For example, a student can use flashcards to self-test and receive feedback as they study. The testing effect provides a larger benefit to long-term memory when the tested material is difficult enough to require effort, the rate of retrieval success is high, and feedback with correct answers is given after testing.

Empirical evidence

Video explanation

The first documented empirical studies on the testing effect were published in 1909 by Edwina E. Abbott.[6][7] An important step in proving the existence of the testing effect was presented in a 1992 study by Carrier and Pashler.[8] Carrier and Pashler showed that testing does not just provide an additional practice opportunity, but produces better results than other forms of studying. In their experiment, learners who tested their knowledge during practice later remembered more information than learners who spent the same amount of time studying the complete information. The abstract summarizes the results as follows:

In the pure study trial (pure ST condition) method, both items of a pair were presented simultaneously for study. In the test trial/study trial (TTST condition) method, subjects attempted to retrieve the response term during a period in which only the stimulus term was present (and the response term of the pair was presented after a 5-sec delay). Final retention of target items was tested with cued-recall tests. In Experiment 1, there was a reliable advantage in final testing for nonsense-syllable/number pairs in the TTST condition over pairs in the pure ST condition. In Experiment 2, the same result was obtained with Eskimo/English word pairs. This benefit of the TTST condition was not apparently different for final retrieval after 5 min or after 24 h. Experiments 3 and 4 ruled out two artifactual explanations of the TTST advantage observed in the first two experiments. Because performing a memory retrieval (TTST condition) led to better performance than pure study (pure ST condition), the results reject the hypothesis that a successful retrieval is beneficial only to the extent that it provides another study experience.

Carrier and Pashler's study did not reveal a very large advantage of testing over studying, but paved the way for numerous further studies that have shown a more marked advantage.[9] The results of a 2010 study by Agarwal et al. showed that the desirable difficulty of open-book and closed-book tests better enhanced learning compared to restudying or testing without feedback.[10] Additionally, a study done by Roediger and Karpicke showed that students in a repeated-testing condition recalled much more after a week than did students in a repeated-study condition (61% vs. 40%), even though students in the former condition read the passage only 3.4 times and those in the latter condition read it 14.2 times.[11] Another study by Butler investigated the possibility that testing only promotes the learning of a specific response. The results showed that the mnemonic benefits of retrieving information from memory are seen well beyond this retention of a specific response.[12] Thus, most studies show greater advantages for testing compared to passive studying as it relates to long-term retention of to-be-remembered information. However, some studies have produced results contrary to this claim.[13] Using retrieval practices also produces less forgetting than studying and restudying.[14]

Preconditions to measurement

Retrieval success

Retrieval practice is a founded twist on the testing effect and is used widely across many classrooms in order to help students recall information prior to an exam, excluding inhabitable influences. Studies in retrieval practice were founded in 1987 by John. L Richards, who first scripted his findings in a published newspaper in New York. In order for a testing effect to be demonstrated, the test trials must have a medium to high retrieval success. If the test trials are so difficult that no items are recalled, or if there is not proper feedback providing answers to the non-recalled items, then minimal information will be encoded and stored to memory.[15][16][17]

Time between retrieval practice and performance measure

Benefits of testing are often only visible after a substantial delay and not immediately after practice, when outcomes may even be better for passively restudied materials than for tested materials.[18][19] Some authors suggest that this can be explained in part by limited retrieval success during practice.[16][17][20]

Retrieval difficulty

According to the retrieval effort hypothesis, "difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals". For example, Pyc and Rawson showed that repeated testing is more beneficial for learning if the intervals between repeated testing are long and each test is therefore more difficult than when the intervals are short and tests are easy.[21] This finding is related to the theory that certain conditions that make learning more effortful through so-called desirable difficulties are beneficial.[15] Another finding showed that weaker cues for recalling information will be more beneficial to future recollection compared to that of stronger cues.[22] Although these strong cues were shown to be more advantageous for initial recall, these stronger cues reduced the likelihood of activating more elaborative information that could be beneficial for retention. On the hand, the weak cues better allowed the to-be-remembered information to be better retained over time, enhancing long-term memory of the information.

Cognitive accounts

Two views have arisen as to why testing seems to provide such a benefit over repeated study. The first view, provided by McDaniel,[23] states that testing allows people to formulate newer, more lasting connections between items than does repeated study. The second view, provided by Karpicke and Roediger[24] studied the effect of testing on memory retention. For their study, they had participants study two different passages; passage one and passage two. They had the participants study passage 1 twice, and passage 2 once. However, passage two was tested on instead of being restudied.One week later they tested them on both passages, and they noticed that passage two was better recalled then passage one.[25] They found that re-studying or re-reading memorized information had no effect, but trying to recall the information had an effect. New findings[26] show more support for the second view. Spacing has also been shown to improve memory in younger and older adults. The spacing effect improves long-term memory from learning material with a break in between learning other information, while the testing effect improves long-term memory by restudying learned information through testing.[27] Both of these methods have been combined to be referred to as space retrieval practice.


Flashcards are an application of the testing effect. Here, flashcard software Anki is used to review a mathematical formula through active recall. First, only the question is displayed. Then the answer is displayed too, for verification.

Before much experimental evidence had been collected, the utility of testing was already evident to some perceptive observers. In his 1932 book Psychology of Study, C. A. Mace said "On the matter of sheer repetitive drill there is another principle of the highest importance: Active repetition is very much more effective than passive repetition. ... there are two ways of introducing further repetitions. We may re-read this list: this is passive repetition. We may recall it to mind without reference to the text before forgetting has begun: this is active repetition. It has been found that when acts of reading and acts of recall alternate, i.e., when every reading is followed by an attempt to recall the items, the efficiency of learning and retention is enormously enhanced."[28] In other words, the testing effect shows that when material is reviewed, the reviewer actively challenges their memory to recall than when re-reading or re-studying the materials. This is called active recall.[29]

Clearly the largest application for any human memory studies of learning effects is for education and finding better ways to relate information to students at every grade level.[30] Extensive research has been done in this area in the last decade. With findings showing that the testing effect can have a greater impact after a delay[31] even though students themselves seemed more confident in studying (which turned out to be false in the data). Additional reviews[32][33] have sought to provide more reliable results of the testing effect to improve education, a trend that after nearly 100 years, seems to be catching on.

“Administering interim tests during studying is a potent strategy to promote and sustain the effectiveness of self-regulated learning across a learning phase.”[25] As a result, teachers should persuade their students to constantly test themselves as part of their studying techniques.[25]

The testing effect is highly transferable. This means that the instructor can teach it in anyway that they want. In addition, they can give the students any format of test that they want, and the testing effect will still apply. Yang et al. did an experiment testing this.[25] They had one group learn and study the material by reading more information with less visuals, and they had another group have more visuals to study from than verbal text. They split both groups into two groups: one that restudied and one that was tested on what they just learned. The groups that were tested were given a fill in the blank test. Then all of the groups were tested by a multiple choice test. In both cases, the participants that were tested twice did better.[25] This shows that testing will result in better recall despite how the teacher teaches, or how the tests are formatted.

"The testing effect is covered in the second module of the Teaching and Learning Strategies for Higher Education online short course, presented by Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning in collaboration with GetSmarter and in association with HarvardX."[34]

See also


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