A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Monday, January 24, 2011

Learn more, test more?

Here's an interesting thing I read in the New York Times: to learn more effectively, testing seems to help, if done in the right way:

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.

In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

Now here is the part I found interesting, especially the section I have place in bold type:
The second experiment focused only on concept mapping and retrieval practice testing, with each student doing an exercise using each method. In this initial phase, researchers reported, students who made diagrams while consulting the passage included more detail than students asked to recall what they had just read in an essay.

But when they were evaluated a week later, the students in the testing group did much better than the concept mappers. They even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.

“When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything — it’s simple playback,” said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the study.

But “when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access” to that information, Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

...Testing, of course, is a highly charged issue in education, drawing criticism that too much promotes rote learning, swallows valuable time for learning new things and causes excessive student anxiety.

“More testing isn’t necessarily better,” said Dr. Linn, who said her work with California school districts had found that asking students to explain what they did in a science experiment rather than having them simply conduct the hands-on experiment — a version of retrieval practice testing — was beneficial. “Some tests are just not learning opportunities. We need a different kind of testing than we currently have.”

Dr. Kornell said that “even though in the short term it may seem like a waste of time,” retrieval practice appears to “make things stick in a way that may not be used in the classroom.

“It’s going to last for the rest of their schooling, and potentially for the rest of their lives.”

Now, notice that this testing is not the sort that one sees on standardized tests, because let's face it. If those tests increased learning, the current batch of students we have now, who have spent their entire lives being tested, would show truly startling gains in retention and understanding.

This goes back to what I have said previously, about the struggle to learn new material being a vital part of the learning process-- a learning process we have crippled for fear of misinterpreting the concept of "stress."

But, if I understand this correctly, and this is just a preliminary reading of this type of experiment, the implications for us as educators is to change the way that we present testing to the students and parents. We need to stop reinforcing the idea that the test is the end of the work with the material, and instead drive home the point that a test is yet another opportunity for learning. This gets back to the question of what our goals in education really are. Are the information and skills that we present only useful in accumulating credits and grades, or are we aiming to encourage and develop the lifelong use of knowledge, and eventually more capable students, workers, and citizens?

This gives us a lot to think about.

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At 1/25/11, 6:21 AM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

By that logic, it seems that reading things and then discussing them in class could be just as effective. The whole force someone to read something, then never discuss it, write about it, or do anything with it method has never much appealed to me anyway, particularly if I'm contemplating a test on it weeks or months later.

At 1/25/11, 6:57 AM, Anonymous Jen said...

Yes, I think the headlining in most newspapers on this report is a little misleading. What they had the students do was *study* in several different ways. One of the study techniques was labeled as being more like testing, but it wasn't actually a test.

Groups either reread a passage several times or they wrote down some sort of diagram/explanation of what they'd read WHILE looking at the passage or they read it, put it away and wrote what they remembered, then read it again and did it again.

That's not really a "test" in my mind, that's a different study technique and like they said, it seems to work because you're not getting the information from the passage like they other groups who have it still in front of them, but you're getting the information from your own brain. It also explains why that group seems to think they knew less -- they were actually recalling things from their head rather than just glancing back at the passage and saying, "oh yeah, I sort of knew that."

To me this negates a lot of the teaching about how kids don't need "content" or "memorized material" because they can always look it up. In fact, it seems we do need to put actual details into our heads and pull them back out a couple of times for things to stick in there.

At 2/5/11, 5:40 PM, Blogger Darren said...

*Excellent* point in your last paragraph, Jen.

At 1/2/12, 1:46 AM, Anonymous puertas metalicas cortafuegos said...

Really worthwhile data, much thanks for the post.


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