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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Taking Another Look at Testing

NOVA EducationNOVA Education

Testing has been a red-hot issue among educators, parents, and students for decades, pitting proponents who praise the data it provides against opponents who criticize the time it takes from classroom instruction and the stress it places on students.

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Cognitive researchers now say that a specific type of testing can actually be good for students, helping them retain information longer.

Using a classroom strategy called

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active retrieval , teachers give frequent, low-stakes quizzes on information students have been taught a day or two before. The quizzes are typically short—no more than six questions—and consist of short-answer or multiple-choice questions that can be administered online or in-person.

Research supports the positive effects of active retrieval . In the Columbia Middle School Project , researchers found that even though tests are typically used for assessment, they can also promote long-term learning in students more efficiently than repeated studying. Early findings suggest that providing students with the opportunity for retrieval practice—and ideally, providing feedback for the responses—will increase learning of targeted as well as related material.

The following are suggestions on how to take advantage of

active retrieval in the classroom:

  1. Ask students to provide “summary points” during a class. Setting aside the last few minutes of a class to ask students to recall, organize, and write down the main points of the lesson may go a long way to helping them remember these topics later.

  1. Pretest to highlight important information and set instructor expectations. By pretesting students before a unit or prior to a day of instruction, teachers may give students a heads-up about the types of questions that they need to be able to answer and the key concepts and facts they should pay attention to during class. This may help give students some much-needed focus.

  1. Tell students about active retrieval. Teachers who tell their students how frequent quizzing helps them to learn can empower them to take control of their own learning, for example, by using sample exams to prep for tests.

The research on active retrieval shows that even across different subject areas and teachers, students can still benefit from these techniques. Students—including special education and gifted students—were better able to remember information on which they had been previously tested using classroom quizzes compared to information that they simply reread or on which they weren’t tested at all. This effect was shown to persist over time, even up to a year after initial classroom testing.

This post is the first in a series of blog posts about the science of learning based on NOVA’s School of the Future film . Stream the film on NOVA’s website and check out the full collection of resources on PBS LearningMedia .