Learning and the "Testing Effect": Research Inside Classrooms

Daniel Willingham recently posted an article on his blog entitled "Better studying = less studying. Wait, what?" It is really about what effective studying really entails. It requires motivation. And tests apparently motivate learning. I look at a children TV show like "Animal Atlas". The show has quizzes and it is not surprising how such activities can help reinforce the information a child is receiving from these shows. The following are examples:

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As Willingham points out, the effect of testing on learning is not just an impression or hypothesis. It is backed by evidence from research. Willingham cites a review on this research area in education by Agarwal, Bain and Chamberlain. The review article, "The Value of Applied Research: Retrieval Practice Improves Classroom Learning and Recommendations from a Teacher, a Principal, and a Scientist", published in the journal Educational Psychology Review, has the following abstract:
Abstract Over the course of a 5-year applied research project with more than 1,400 middle school students, evidence from a number of studies revealed that retrieval practice in authentic classroom settings improves long-term learning (Agarwal et al. 2009; McDaniel et al., Journal of Educational Psychology 103:399–414, 2011; McDaniel et al. 2012; Roediger et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 17:382–395, 2011a). Retrieval practice, or the use of quizzes and exams to engage and enhance retrieval processes, has been widely established as an effective strategy for facilitating learning in laboratory settings (e.g., Roediger et al. 2011c). In this article, we review recent findings from applied research that demonstrate that retrieval practice enhances long-term classroom learning, delayed quizzes are particularly potent for retention, quizzes benefit students’ transfer to novel quiz items, and quizzes with feedback improve students’learning and metacognitive awareness. In addition to generating evidence to support retrieval-based learning, these applied research studies also enhanced the professional development of the teachers, administrators, and scientists involved in the project. In this article, it is our hope that by sharing what we have learned from a variety of perspectives, applied scientific research in K-12 classrooms will continue to be explored and generated at local, state, and national levels, improving student learning and educational decision-making.
This is not simply "teaching to the test". As illustrated by a study by McDaniel et al., "Quizzing in Middle-School Science: Successful Transfer Performance on Classroom Exams", learning from testing does not involve simply a memorization of the correct answers but rather a deeper understanding of the tested content. This is shown by providing quiz and exam questions that are different in format. The following is an example given by McDaniel's question for a quiz question and an exam question:

What of the following correctly describes active transport? 
A. When a cell moves water without the use of energy.
B. The movement of RNA from the Golgi body to the nucleus.
C. The transportation of DNA from the endoplasmic reticulum to the nucleus.
D. The movement of material through the cell membrane
using energy.
What process is used when a cell needs to take in a substance that is higher in concentration inside the cell then outside and requires the cell to use energy to complete this process? 
A. Passive transport
B. Active transport
C. Osmosis
D. Diffusion
The results of the experiment are summarized in the following figure:

Captured from
Aside from the important findings summarized in the review article, there is another gem that I found worth reiterating. Near the end of the article is a section called "Recommendations from a Teacher, a Principal, and a Scientist". This section provides personal reflections from each of the authors. Here are excerpts:

Thoughts from a sixth grade teacher
Research is a vital component in many disciplines (e.g., medicine, science, consumer products, advertising); yet, few teacher education courses or professional development workshops incorporate recent research on how people learn. As a veteran teacher, I (the second author) have had to personally seek out this information; it was rarely available through typical channels. When the opportunity arose that would allow me to become involved in research on how students learn, I seized the opportunity. Fortunately, the project design followed strict research procedures while also incorporating the tried and true methods of veteran teachers....
Thoughts from a middle school principal
When I (the third author) was approached about Columbia Middle School’s participation in a research project, my first thought was how our involvement would be beneficial for the school and most importantly for our students. I was cautious but held an open mind due to what I anticipated could be an innovative study that fit in our school’s technology plan while introducing research-based strategies that could facilitate improved learning across a broad range of student abilities....
Thoughts from a university scientist
As the Research Coordinator of Washington University’s project at Columbia Middle School, I (the first author) became the eyes, ears, and hands of the day-to-day activities at the middle school. Through my frequent interaction with students and teachers, coordinationof 10 research assistants, development of materials, implementation of research procedures, and analysis of results, I learned quickly and avidly what is required when conducting applied research: strong relationships between the university and school settings, the ability to troubleshoot challenges regarding experimental control that present themselves in applied settings, and patience. Frequent communication was crucial to ensure that everyone’s priorities and needs could be addressed and met....
These three authors were not talking about some catchy phrase like "disruptive technology". These three authors are simply doing their best, working together, to find better ways they can help students learn. It is truly a gem....


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