Photo Credit: Ethan Block on Flickr
A good friend of mine likes to remind me that simply testing kids doesn't increase their learning, thus the title of this post derives from her catchy phrase that, "weighing pigs doesn't make them fatter". The authors of Make it Stick (Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel) might disagree with that statement. The subtitle of the book is The Science of Successful Learning and their aim is to review the research on what practices help us learning. You can get a summary of their work on the American RadioWorks podcast here and a related podcast here.
The first strategy that they discuss is the benefit of retrieval to aid memory, especially when compared to simply rereading content. Retrieval is described as self testing, using flash cards to practice the content, summarizing after reading short chunks, writing key ideas after reading, and low stakes quizzing. Study after study compares the benefits to learning that accrue when one retrieves the information periodically during a course of study instead of simply reading and rereading the material and notes. Students who stop to recite what they are learning or are asked to answer short quizzes learn more both in the short term - and here's the big bonus - in the long term. This is called The Testing Effect. For those of you who are still bent on cramming, you will see some immediate benefit from that frenzied approach, but the gains quickly disappear in to the black hole of long term forgetting. You will get more benefit from studying and testing yourself AND you will remember more of what you have learned a month later.
Their research about this topic also found that learners benefited from questions and testing that were spaced out to allow some forgetting to occur such that the act of retrieval was accompanied by cognitive effort. The greater the effort (so long as there was ultimate success) the more that the learner remembered. Other benefits of frequent quizzing (effortful retrieval) included students understanding the content that they knew and didn't know in order to study more effectively, lower test anxiety because frequent quizzes helped students gain confidence, and slight improvement in attendance in higher education courses.
I see several implications for schools.
1. Teach students how to study. Explain to students the benefits of summarizing what they are learning through taking notes about the content they are grasping.
2. Embrace low stakes quizzing throughout all units of study. While we are in an environment of high stakes testing and there are plenty of reasons to eschew more testing. Research has shown that low stakes questioning will enhance learning of all content and allow students to perform higher order thinking because of the rich content that is solidifying into their long term memory.
3. Implement this research today. Too often educators have sneered at research that seems counter intuitive and the big losers are our students. Check out the research yourself and you will see that this practice consistently allows students to learn material at a much higher rate than merely rereading.
Let's try this out!