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How Testing Can Help Your Students Learn (Based on the Science of Learning)

How testing can help your students learn, according to the science of learningTesting has a bad rap.

And for good reason.

For one, many see the standardized testing in our primary schools as unbeneficial to our students and a poor measure of our kids. Teachers may teach to the test versus teaching for learning and growth.

Secondly, testing can be seen merely as a dipstick of how much students have learned, and for some, especially students, how “smart” or “dumb” they are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Testing can actually be used as a tool for learning versus a measurement stick.

Here’s how.

The Science of Learning

How We Learn and Make it Stick are two books that discuss the research and results of the science of learning.

One of the biggest points that the books make is that the intuitive way we often study is actually ineffective. It turns out that rereading and looking over notes multiple times is not an effective or efficient way to learn.

In fact, one of the studies in the books showed that rereading a text had no benefit whatsoever for long-term learning.

Instead, what seems counterintuitive and harder is the best way.

The fluency illusion

The traditional way of studying and learning often causes the fluency illusion, or the illusion of knowledge.

Benedict Cary in How We Learn defines fluency illusion as “the impression that, because something is self-evident in the moment, it will remain that way in a day, or a week.”

I know from personal experience that I have sometimes read a book or studied a subject and thought that because it was an easy concept and it was self-evident, I would remember it. However, a few days or hours (or even sooner) I would discover that I forgot (or never really learned it).

Cary says that often people don’t really have a testing problem (though some do), it’s that they never really learned the material in the first place.

Retrieval practice

One of the best ways to learn and remember material long-term is through retrieval practice (e.g. testing).

This could be done in many ways:

  • Quizzing oneself after reading a chapter or over lecture notes
  • Taking a paper and rewriting what you learned
  • Explaining what you learned to someone else
  • using flash cards
  • and so on.

Practicing recalling the information, especially over spaced intervals of time, produces the best learning. In fact, In Make it Stick, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel said that it was found for optimal learning, practicing recalling information about 60% of one’s study time was most effective.


learning with testing francis bacon quote

Spaced repetition

Not only should we practice recalling the information, we should do it over spaced periods of time.

Cramming for a test works – temporarily. Students learn the information for the test, but not long-term. Instead, if one does shorter study periods but in multiple sessions before the test, a student will able to remember much more long-term.

Interleaved learning

It’s also important to mix what you are learning together.

Take a baseball player practicing batting.

A batter who practices with pitches mixed up (fastballs, curveballs, etc.) versus a batter who practices only one pitch at a time (fastballs for a while, then curveballs for a while, etc.) will long-term do better batting, though in the short-term the mixed batter will do worse.

Why is this?

Because by mixing the pitches, the batter is able to learn to distinguish between the different pitches and adjust accordingly.

It works with math as well. If all you do is practice a batch of one type of problem, then the next, you won’t learn as much than if you mixed up the different types of problems.

When you mix up the different problems, you have to learn and figure out how to solve each problem and what formula or solution will work best.


So What About Testing?

Retrieval practice is testing, whether it’s a self-test or a test or quiz in class.

It’s important that we help students see testing as a tool to help learn, to help see what we do know and what we still need to learn. We need to help students get past the fixed mindset (that you are born with what you got) and into a growth mindset (you can keep learning and growing – intelligence isn’t fixed).

With the right mindset, testing is a tool for growth, not a measurement of failure. It can help answer the question, “What do I need to learn in order to improve?”

It also vanquishes the fluency trap – students can discover what they don’t know and learn it.

Having more tests in class can also help improve student attentiveness and attendance.

Here are some interesting points that studies have shown about testing:

  • The sooner you practice retrieval the better you will remember. One study had two groups read an article once then had one group take one or two quizzes that week and the other group two weeks or more afterwards. The group that tested the first week got about 50% on the final. The other below 30% (they only studied the article once).
  • Pretests are extremely effective as well as having a student trying to figure out the problem before giving the solution. When a student learns the answer or how how to do the problem, they are more likely to remember it.

“Trying to come up with an answer rather than having it presented to you, or trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution, leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution, even when your attempted response is wrong, so long as corrective feedback is provided.” – Brown, et al.

  • Delayed feedback can be more effective than immediate feedback
  • A simple quiz produces after a lecture or reading produces better learning than rereading or reviewing notes.
  • The more effort  it takes to retrieve the informatoin, the stronger the learning.
  • A 2010 New York Times article reported a study that showed students who read and tested retained 50% more than students who had not been tested.
  • Students preferred quizzes in their classes: 64% said it helped reduce anxiety for the unit exams, and 89% said that they felt it increased learning.
  • Students who more routinely test have to do less cramming for tests.
  • Questions that require a student to supply an answer works better than with the answers provided (though multiple-choice questions, for example, can be effective when corrective feedback is given as well).

How do we implement these ideas?

There are many ways to implement these findings into your classes to help students learn. Here are some ideas that you can glean from to use for your own classes:

Teach students how to self-test

Help students see testing as a method of learning, to see what they don’t know so they can learn it. Flash cards, asking yourself what you learned after reading it, writing summaries on papers, telling someone else about it, all are effective methods they can use.

Also, suggest shorter study periods that are spread out more (versus one giant study session), as well as mixing problems. This will help students learn an do better in class.

Start class with a pretest, or let them try to solve the problem first

When you start your class, give them a pretest on the material that you are about to cover. Even if they don’t know any of the answers, it will help prime them to learn more as the information is given.

If there is some kind of problem they should work out, let them try before teaching how to do it. Get them to think and see what they can come up with. When they do learn how to do it, it will stick even more.

Do spontaneous verbal quizzes in class

While lecturing, stop and then ask the students a question on a topic that you just covered. Don’t let them look at their notes. This can help them focus more in class as well as help them remember what you covered.

Do a written recall exercise

At the end of class, ask students to pull out a paper and write out all of the main facts they remember from the lecture without using notes. Afterward, you can tell them to go through the notes and to focus studying on the areas they missed.

After reading a passage or covering a topic, you could also ask your students to write out X number of facts they didnt know about that topic before the lecture or reading.

Depending on the subject, you could also ask them to outline what you covered.


Do low-stakes quizzes throughout the course

Do more quizzes and tests in your class, whether at the beginning or end of class. The more students have to work to recall, the more the learning will stick. Also, interleave your quizzes with material from throughout the semester or quarter. This will help students connect the information together as well as remember it.


Practiced retrieval is the best way to learn new material. Spaced study sessions and interleaving material are also major components of effective learning.

Testing in class, if done with the right mindset and goal, can actually be a help to students. As we saw from the studies, students actually preferred having the tests and quizzes in class.

Some of the ideas that we can use in classes include pretesting, writing summaries of what they’ve learned, mixing low-stake quizzes in courses, as well as helping students learn how to study better.

What is your take on this? Have you implemented any of these strategies in your classes? Do you have any other ideas or suggestions?