Learning about the basics of learning
By Cynthia Brame, Ph.D., CFT Assistant Director
Last September, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine suggesting that pre-testing could improve subsequent student learning. The article was based on work by Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and colleagues, and indicated that pre-testing could help students avoid the “fluency fallacy” and might alert them to the kind of learning that their instructor valued.
I was fascinated. I immediately started googling Elizabeth Ligon Bjork’s work, and then moved on to a more careful and scholarly search.
I found that the phenomenon described in the article was the tip of a very well-described iceberg known variously as test-enhanced learning or the testing effect. In essence, test-enhanced learning is the idea that the process of remembering concepts or facts—retrieving them from memory—increases long-term retention of those concepts or facts. This idea rests on myriad studies examining the ability of various types of “tests”—prompts to promote retrieval—to promote learning when compared to studying alone. It is one of the most consistent findings in cognitive psychology.
As I dug further into the literature, I was struck that I could be ignorant of such an important observation. The findings made intuitive sense, but I certainly had not known that this was a phenomenon that I could—perhaps should—weave into my classes. After asking several colleagues, I determined that I was far from alone in my ignorance.
I began working with Rachel Biel, undergraduate intern at the CFT and Vanderbilt HOD major, to synthesize some of the literature on the testing effect to share with broader audiences. We chose studies that focused on college-age students and that used educationally relevant materials (e.g., reading passages as opposed to word pairs). After reading more than 40 primary research reports, we drew six conclusions about the testing effect, as well as some important caveats to keep in mind. We wrote those conclusions up to share with college science instructors in CBE-Life Sciences Education, where the article is a featured article in the summer issue. We’ve also drafted a briefer description appropriate across the disciplines to share as a teaching guide.