Testing strengthens recall whether something's on the test or not

WASHINGTON -- Remember those kids who wanted to study only what was on the test? They may have cheated themselves. New research reveals that the simple act of taking a test helps you remember everything you learned, even if it isn't tested. In three experiments, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis determined that testing enhanced long-term recall for material that was not tested initially. Untested students recalled significantly less of what they'd studied – even after having extra time to go over the material.

This confirmation of how mid-term or final-exam type tests foster learning is reported in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Tests are more than efficient scoring tools. The authors call them a "powerful memory enhancer." Although psychologists knew that testing strengthened the subsequent recall of the tested learned material, it hadn't been clear whether typical classroom tests (as distinguished from high-stakes standardized tests) also strengthened recall of the material not put on the test.

In the first experiment, 84 undergraduates were given 25 minutes to study a long factual article about the biological characteristics and living habits of the toucan bird. Afterward, participants were divided among three groups. Students in the testing group answered 22 questions about the material. Students in an "extra study" group read 22 additional statements about toucans, essentially giving them a head start – though they did not take a test. Students in a control group were immediately dismissed.

One day later, all 84 students took a final test with 44 questions (22 old, 22 new). The lead author, doctoral student Jason Chan, MA, points out that the 24-hour interval simulated the way most students cram the day before a test. Students tested on related questions on Day 1 significantly outperformed, on the new questions, both students who had received extra study on Day 1 and students in the control group. Thus the testing, not the extra study, accounted for improved performance.

The results "imply that as long as students have retrieved a concept, other related concepts should also receive a boost." The authors may soon hear from their own students for suggesting that, "educators might consider increasing the frequency of testing to enhance long-term retention for both the tested and the related, non-tested material."

In Experiment 2, each of 72 undergraduates studied two of four articles – the one about the toucans, and/or "The Big Bang Theory, " "The History of Hong Kong," or "The Shaolin Temple" – topics expected to be relatively unknown to most undergraduate psychology majors. For each student, one article was tested and one was not, creating an experimental and control condition for each student – a "within subjects" design. Again, 24 hours later, all students were tested – and having been tested on Day 1 accounted for a significantly better performance on Day 2.

A third experiment with 54 undergraduates manipulated the strategies that students used when they completed the first test. In response, accurate recall of the new questions on Day 2 increased with time spent on answering questions on Day 1. This relation was especially pronounced for students with lower performance on the test, highlighting the value of giving students -- particularly struggling students -- ample time during exams. In other words, given more time, they can more fully demonstrate their knowledge.

Also, students who were encouraged to guess during Day 1's test (an all-inclusive strategy) did significantly better on Day 2 than did students who were discouraged from guessing. Thus, the researchers think the use of memory strategies during learning could be especially helpful for answering short-answer and essay exams, which tend to be more conceptual and rely on the recall of a range of information.

The authors say their findings might be especially encouraging to teachers who regularly give essay or short-answer exams, for which students tend to recall related or extraneous information. They note, "This sort of all-inclusive retrieval strategy might be beneficial to retention in the long run."

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Article: "Retrieval-Induced Facilitation: Initially Nontested Material Can Benefit From Prior Testing of Related Material;" Jason C. K. Chan, MA, Kathleen B. McDermott, PhD, and Henry L. Roediger III, PhD, Washington University in St. Louis; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 135, No. 4.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/xge1354553.pdf)

Jason Chan can be reached by email at ckchan@artsci.wustl.edu or by phone at (314) 935-8892. His cell phone is (314) 495-7779.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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