The More You Test, the More You Learn

By Debra Viadero — June 10, 2009 1 min read
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The best part of the research conference that the federal Institute of Education Sciences holds each year is the poster sessions. If you’ve never been to one, poster sessions are like science fairs for grown-ups. Scholars post neat, readable summaries of their work on display boards, and visitors stroll up and down the aisles, browsing and asking questions.

In this case, though, the presenters—more than 100 in all—were all researchers whose studies are being financed by the institute. One of the first projects to catch my eye this year was a study that tries to puzzle out how to schedule quizzes for maximum learning power. In 2006, I wrote about an earlier iteration of this project, which found that taking a test can improve students’ learning retention. That’s probably not a welcome message for the anti-testing crowd, but you can read more about it in this EdWeek article.

This time around, the research team from Washington University in St. Louis is trying to determine how many and what kind of quizzes produce the best results. To find out, the researchers tested eight possible combinations of pre-tests, post-tests, reviews, and no tests at all on students in four 8th grade science classrooms in Illinois.

What they learned was that the more quizzes students took, the more information they retained. The most successful regimen was for teachers to give one test before the teacher’s lesson, a second quiz immediately after the lesson or the next day, and a review quiz the day before students were scheduled to take the unit exam. Under that approach, students answered an average of 85 percent of the items correctly. When students were given no tests at all prior to the unit exam, they got the right answers only 64 percent of the time, on average.

The researchers aren’t done yet, though. Pooja K. Agarwal, a graduate student working on the project, said the plan is to design an “ideal” instructional combination, which would include tests with open-ended response questions, quick feedback to students on the right answers, and frequent quizzes. The researchers will test that routine in middle schools in the fall.

For more on these results, contact the lead researcher, Henry L. Roediger III, at Washington University.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.