When More Testing Is Good

  • By Eben Bein & Ari Daniel
  • Posted 08.18.16
  • NOVA

Cognitive scientists and teachers have teamed up to help students retain what they learn. They found that frequent testing is a powerful way to make memories last since the act of retrieving a memory during a test strengthens the memory itself. This means that tests are more than just a way to measure learning—they can also reinforce it.

Running Time: 03:23


Ari: Testing. Students dread it. Many educators say it steals precious teaching time. But what if more testing is actually the solution to better learning?

Patrice Bain: I have some really bright students who couldn’t tell me what we had done a month ago. They could copy. They could copy really well, but if you asked an essential question, they wouldn’t know how to answer.

What transformations occurred during the Middle Ages?

Ari: So to improve her students’ memory, she tests them—every day.

Bain: Names on top, number one through five.

I just take whatever we did the day before, I put it in a basket, I pull 5 things out. It makes the students so accountable for their learning. They have to know the information. They have to retrieve this information.

Number one. What is the term for a grand church?

Ari: This isn’t a high-stakes test. It’s a mini-quiz. Bain won’t even record the scores.

Bain: And number five.

Ari: These quizzes prompt students to fetch information from memory.

Mark McDaniel: We should be trying to retrieve the information, getting it out of memory rather than trying to cram it into memory.

Ari: Cognitive psychologists Mark McDaniel and Roddy Roediger have spent decades studying memory and learning. They say if long-term memories aren’t used often enough, they can fade. But not if they’re retrieved frequently.

McDaniel: Turns out that retrieval practice is extremely effective for creating robust memories.

Ari: Whereas traditional studying techniques, like highlighting and re-reading notes…

Roddy Roediger: … will get you by on the short term, but you’ll forget the information quite quickly. So you need other strategies.

Ari: McDaniel and Roediger conducted a multi-year study at Columbia Middle School. Patrice Bain was one of the teachers in the study.

Bain: What is feudalism?

Girl: Governing and organizing a society based on land and service.

Bain: Oh, I like that.

Ari: The results of the study were clear. By giving regular, low-stakes quizzes, students performed better on graded tests administered days to weeks later. In other words, their recall often improved.

Testing’s here to stay, so teachers have to optimize how they use it.

Bain: It has kind of been my mission to take this research, this cognitive science, and turn it into these simple strategies. These are strategies that just about anyone can use.

McDaniel: All of these changes are so minor. Implementing them requires very little modification to the existing curricula and to how teachers spend their time in the classrooms.

Ari: At least some educators seem to agree. Roediger says that many teachers have already adopted the approach. To use testing to promote learning as it happens.



Eben Bein
Editor & Narrator
Ari Daniel
Production Assistant
Sara Tewksbury
Director of Photography
Jason Longo
Mark Mandler
Documentary Editors
Bruce Shaw & Geoff Gruetzmacher
Documentary Director/Producer
Phil Bertelsen
Documentary Co-Producer
Jane Teeling
Documentary Associate Producer
Natalia Warchol
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016




(main image: student taking test)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016

Related Links

  • School of the Future

    How can the science of learning help us rethink the future of education for all children?

  • How Smart Can We Get?

    See inside Einstein's brain, learn how to boost your memory, meet people who became savants after an injury, and more.

  • How Does the Brain Work?

    Investigate the psychology of magic tricks, magnetic wands that treat depression, artificial intelligence, and more.

  • A Memorable Snail

    What can a spineless sea snail teach us about our brains and how memory works?