The Benefits of Testing

The distinguished psychologist Roddy Roediger was invited to give the keynote address for the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Psychonomic Society. The title of the address is “The Critical Role of Retrieval in Enhancing Long-Term Memory: From the Laboratory to the Classroom.” A streaming video of this keynote address came be found at

Roediger begins his address by stating the implicit bargain that is usually made between teachers and students. Students don’t like taking tests and teachers don’t like giving them. Not only does the teacher need to construct the test, but she also needs to grade them, a time consuming task. So testing and exams are usually kept to a minimum. Moreover, testing is used to measure learning and the assumption has been that little or no learning takes place during testing. Roediger’s address should disabuse anyone of this notion.

Roediger presents a series of studies that vary the respective number of study and test trials. Little difference was observed during learning. But on retention tests that were given two days later, retention was solely a function of the number of test trials. He presents a series of studies varying the materials and the nature of the tests, but they all basically hammer home the same theme. Not only does learning occur during testing, but more learning occurs during testing than during study. One study done with a group of middle schoolers showed that repeated testing had the result of raising the average grade from a C+ to an A-.

It is interesting to examine the subjective ratings of students and test participants. They feel that they are learning more during study than during testing. When students keep re-reading highlighted material in a textbook, they get the filling that they really know the material and their confidence goes up. However, when a student tries to recall material from memory and fails, confidence is lowered. Yet the looking up of the material that was forgotten is more beneficial and the student has a more realistic appraisal of what is known and what needs to be studied. In the end, this latter experience is more beneficial.

The actual attempt to remember information forces the person to access the correct retrieval routes to that information. If the information is found, then that retrieval route is strengthened. When it is not found, the information is restudied and the retrieval route relaid. More effort is involved in testing than simply studying material, and there is evidence that this increased effort is also beneficial.

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First of all, cramming is not recommended. Even if you learn enough to pass the test, the information will quickly be lost. So its availability on a final exam or later in life is questionable.

Secondly, test yourself and recited the material frequently. This testing should be even more effective if spread out over time.

And what, if any, are the implications for the education system? Break the silent bargain between teachers and students and test more frequently. Roediger and his colleagues have taken to the practice of having a ten minute test at the end of every lecture. This practice not only forces students to keep up, but it also leads to better lifelong learning.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Benefits of Testing”

  1. lanniewelleven Says:

    this does confirm my own experience having been educated in Belgium in the Dutch language educational system, through to university where I took a language and linguistics degree/ later in life i did a one year bible reading and sharing course referred to as the (new) Way of the Spirit (quote from Letter to the Romans 7: verse 6).
    Jesus in dealing with his pupils used a similar technique, without as much as formalizing the testing proceedure, but it was there: John’s Gospel chptr. 13 and in particular 14 are a case in point.

    harry de boom

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