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Three things I learned while writing about test-enhanced learning

Posted by on Monday, August 24, 2015 in News.

By Rachel Biel, CFT undergraduate intern

I recently had the privilege of coauthoring an essay about the benefits of testing beyond assessment. As a student who is tested most commonly for formal assessment, the idea of testing as part of the learning process was new to me. Beyond the practical implications of incorporating more testing into my personal studies, the research and writing process of this essay brought me into a world I previously knew little about: educational research. In this blog post I discuss some of the unintended understandings I gained while participating in this research.

1. Finding the most effective way to teach benefits both instructors and students

Educational research provides us with information about the efficacy of different teaching and learning activities. By using more effective methods of teaching, instructors can use fewer resources (i.e. time and energy) to cultivate students with more knowledge and skills. Test-enhanced learning is just one example of a small change that uses little extra resources but significantly increases long-term retention of information. By knowing the effects of such educational interventions, the education system can be made more efficient; instructors can focus their time and preparation on activities with higher returns, and students can be confident that the instruction they are being given is the best use of their time and energy as well.

2. There is no big secret to practices in the classroom or magic formula

I used to think there was some secret panel that gave tips to instructors on how to “trick” students into learning. Being aware of and interested in teaching practices, I would observe everything from the schedule of the class to the colors in the power points, trying to decipher the code. Now I know that there are established groups to determine the best way to teach information, but they are not at all a secret—just rarely mentioned to the undergraduate population. Often, a simple explanation can justify different classroom practices.  For example, clicker questions are usually less about assessing what students know, and more about increasing participation and implementing no-stakes and low-stakes assessment for retrieval practice. There isn’t “one best way” to teach a class. Instead there are many well-researched philosophies and strategies for maximizing learning.

3. It’s easier to find an answer than an explanation

In the paper we summarize a handful of studies, explaining the circumstances and the results of testing to enhance learning. The cause and effect relationship is made, however, the studies lack clear, precise explanations of why retrieval practice benefits retention. We know that retrieval practice enhances learning, but we do not know the specific mechanisms through which this occurs. While I have no doubt that in the future we may find these explanations, this research reminded me of the gaps that still exist in the world of cognitive sciences.

As a liberal arts student, the conclusions of research on teaching and learning may affect the instruction I receive in the classroom. The experience of participating in researching, writing, and revising this essay taught me what it did because of my background and interests. As a Human and Organizational Development major I have learned to value efficiency, but also relationships. I am fascinated by the relationship of an instructor and student, particularly their involvement in the learning process. My desire to understand this relationship and the learning process led me to observe and analyze different classroom activities and methods of instruction in my own classes. Lastly, my interest in science and discovery drives me to look for the answers and establish cause and effect relationships. Together, these personal interests of mine allowed me to learn from the experience of coauthoring this essay.

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