Don’t believe quizzes and tests help retention? Heed the evidence

Posted by John Kleeman

I’ve been sharing the new evidence from cognitive psychology at several conferences in the last year. This peer-reviewed, scientific evidence shows that taking a quiz or test enhances learning and slows the forgetting curve. Although many people are enthused and fascinated, some are doubtful. And a few turn away because they regard cognitive psychology as being out of fashion.

Of course, it takes time for all new evidence to get accepted, and I’d like to share some of the questions comments and objections I’ve been hearing lately.

In case you’re not familiar with the evidence, here are the slides from my presentation at Online Educa in Berlin in December (or you can also see them on SlideShare), or check out related blog articles: here, here and here).


View more presentations from Questionmark

You could also come to my session at the Questionmark Users Conference in New Orleans in March 2012, where I’ll be talking about the benefits of spacing out learning and how assessments can help here.

So what are the objections I’ve been hearing recently? And how do I respond?

“We test our students too much already, we don’t need more tests”

Some people confuse the benefits of quizzes and tests as retrieval practice with the over-use of standardized tests in schools. They are two different things – and it can be helpful to use a word other than “tests” for retrieval practice, for instance quizzes or exercises.

“We don’t have time for more tests and quizzes”

A complaint can be that the course is too full to find space for more quizzes. But since the evidence shows that spending time taking a quiz helps learning more than re-studying a subject, it may be worth adjusting things. If you want your learners to retain what you teach, not just learn and forget it, you need to give quizzes or other retrieval practice

“We teach creativity or other higher level skills. not facts”

There are two answers to this. One is that the research implies that quizzes and tests encourage retention of concepts as well as facts. The other is that all disciplines need knowledge of basic facts and vocabulary to build creativity on top.

“How valid is the research?”

Some people would like to see more studies with larger numbers of participants and in the real world. Or they wonder whether increased forgetting of the material not tested counter-balances the positive effects of quizzes as retrieval practice. These are good questions; this research has mostly happened in the last few years, and I would like to see more of it. But the basic concepts go back hundreds of years. The evidence for quizzes directly helping learning, particularly if they include feedback, is strong.

“Our learners don’t like being tested”

Unfortunately the retrieval practice benefit of quizzes helps more in the long term than the short term. So there is a paradox that if you take a quiz or test you might feel it’s not helping when it is. This can be a challenge. Part of the answer is to make quizzes enjoyable and part is to educate learners on the benefits of retrieval practice.

“Our employees have privacy concerns about being tested”

There are ways to deal with this, for example by following a respected standard like ISO 10667. If privacy is a concern, you can make retrieval practice quizzes anonymous. This still gives learning benefit but makes it harder to track.

“Psychologists don’t know anything about pedagogy”

This may be true, but if psychologists can demonstrate (as they seem to in peer-reviewed studies) that learners retain information better in memory by learning in one way or another, then sensible instructors will learn from the research and apply it to their pedagogy.

“Cognitive psychology is not fashionable in education”

This is the one objection I don’t have a good answer to! I may be missing some of the history between the two disciplines, but it seems to me that we should base instruction and learning on what the evidence says and not on fashion or opinion. But if someone believes otherwise I’m not sure how to persuade them. Any suggestions?

5 Responses to Don’t believe quizzes and tests help retention? Heed the evidence

  1. Larry says:

    Without testing of some sort, we don’t know if participants have learned what they should or what we need them to know, how effective the presentation is and if participants have the information to put into practice at work or home. We also can’t certify that participants have reached a level of knowledge, not just attended and put in seat time.

    Perhaps you can refer to it as ‘bran based learning’ instead of cognitive psychology. Brain based is the new buzz word even though both are based on some of the same things. I come at things from a psychology perspective which I’ve come to find helpful across disciplines – education, marketing, training, influence, etc. You make good points about the need to have improved tools to find out what we know since many educators or trainers rely on verbal responses from participants without that they got a lot out of it rather than knowing how much they really know!

  2. kalpana says:

    Quizzes and tests are very effective to retain knowledge and information this can be supplemental by discussions of the topis in the class, If you have the time, we can ask students to form groups , explain to each other on concept to the other and we can assess how each have understood the concepts , it also improves their cognitive and language skills

  3. Steve says:

    “Cognitive psychology is not fashionable in education” = “We don’t really CARE what actually WORKS, we just want it to be FAST and EASY for the instructor” …

    Although that may not be their INTENT, that is the RESULT.

  4. mamadi sidibeh says:

    The purpose of acquiring skills and knowledge is to bring about change or make a difference in the way we do things and quizzes/tests help to ensure understanding, so they are very vital tools that help to measure understanding.

  5. […] of the best tools an organization can implement is regular quizzing. So Let’s set up a scenario. Your business partner approaches you and says that a new error code […]

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