How tests help online learners stay on task

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Online courses offer a flexible and increasingly popular way for people to learn. But what about the many distractions that can cause a student’s mind to wander off the subject at hand?

According to a team of Harvard University researchers, administering short tests to students watching video lectures can decrease mind-wandering, increase note-taking and improve retention.

Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures, a paper by Harvard Postdoctoral Fellow Karl K. Szpunar, Research Assistant Novall Y. Khan and Psychology Professor  Daniel L. Schacter, was published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  (PNAS) in the U.S.

The team conducted two experiments in which they interspersed online lectures with memory tests and found that such tests can: help students pay more sustained attention to lecture content encourage task-relevant note-taking improve learning reduce students’ anxiety about final tests.

“Here we provide evidence that points toward a solution for the difficulty that students frequently report in sustaining attention to online lectures over extended periods,” the researchers say.


In this experiment a group of students watched a 21-minute lecture presented in four segments of about five minutes each. After each segment, students were asked to do some math problems. Some students were then tested on the material from the lecture, while others (the “not tested” group) did more math problems.

This research seems to indicate that including tests or quizzes could make online courses more successful. So yes! Use assessments to reinforce what people are learning in your own courses. Whatever types of information you are presenting online – whether it’s a lecture, an illustration or text, you can help students stay focused by embedding assessments right on the same page as your learning materials.

A previous post on this blog offers an example of how embedded quizzes are being used to engage learners. You can read more about the recently published research, including an interview with Szpunar and Schacter, in the Harvard Gazette. You can read the paper here.

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