Conference Close-up: Timing is Everything

Posted by Joan Phaup

As many followers of this blog will know, Questionmark Chairman John Kleeman has been exploring the findings of cognitive learning research and considering how it can apply to assessments.

At this year’s Questionmark Users Conference in New Orleans, John will explain research on the value of spacing out learning and assessment as means of helping people remember information for the long term.

I asked him the other day about his presentation, Timing is Everything : Using psychology research to make your assessments more effective”

What do you value you most about what you’ve been learning from the work of cognitive learning researchers?

John Kleeman

There’s a lot of evidence from cognitive psychology that could make a difference in how we do assessments, training and learning, and I want people to be aware of it. I’m excited about research that’s being done and am keen to share research findings so that people involved in learning and assessment can use that evidence in practical ways.

What key findings about the timing of assessments will you share during your breakout session?

There’s a fascinating and well-documented finding that if you space out learning – separate it out – it’s much more effective than if you do it all in one chunk. Learning should be regarded as a process, not an event. Research shows that if you spend half an hour a day for four days learning something it will be more effective than if you cover all the material in a single two-hour session. Because of the way the mind works, having breaks between learning sessions will help you remember information for the long term. I’ll be sharing solid evidence about this and will talk about its implications.

Assessment plays into all this! An assessment with feedback is learning, and so if you take a series of separated-out assessments, this gives you spacing. Also if you give learners a series of assessments during a course, and encourage them to learn and revise for each assessment, you are encouraging this good behavior of spacing out their learning. So if you have people take quizzes and tests throughout learning instead of just at the end, you are promoting some good learning habits.

Can you give me an example of this?

I wrote not too long ago about how the University of Lund in Sweden uses embedded assessments for knowledge checks within a SharePoint-based learning platform. They’ve found that requiring students to take quizzes as they work through distance learning courses forces them to engage with the material and practice retrieving information from the very start of their courses — and to keep that engagement going throughout the course. That’s a great way to prevent people from cramming a lot of learning into a short period of time – as they might do before a final exam. So assessments can be used to help space out learning. If you just rely on final tests or exams then there is a risk of encouraging people to cram at the end of the course, rather than helping them learn and remember information for the long term.

How can we use research findings about the spacing of learning in designing tests and quizzes?

One of the things I covered last year and will review in this session is the benefit of retrieval practice – the fact that if you want to remember something for the long term then you want to practice retrieving it from memory. Things you have practiced retrieving are easier to remember. So if you have to answer a question or take a test on material, it makes it more likely you will remember it in future. For example, for retrieval practice it’s best if possible to use open-ended questions that require the person to recall information rather than recognize it from a multiple choice list. And you definitely should include feedback.

Another point to keep in mind is that the material that gets tested is the material people will remember, so it’s important to cover the material you really regard as valuable and worth remembering. We’ll discuss these and other ideas about how to apply the research to assessments during the session.

What you do expect participants in your session to take away from it?

I’ll be sharing some of the evidence from cognitive psychology both to communicate to what I understand to be the results and to have people come up with their own views. I will also share links to resources from experts like Dr. Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research so that they can learn more on their own.

I don’t just want to say, “Here’s the data and believe me!” I want to give attendees a way to look into this themselves and understand it. Once they grasp the principles coming out of the research, it will help them formulate assessment practices and plans in ways that apply to their individual organizations’ needs.

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We hope to see you in New Orleans March 20 – 23 and encourage you to sign up by January 27 for early-bird savings.

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