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Test before you teach – new research on learning

Recently Scientific American came out with an article called Getting it Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn by Henry L. Roediger and Bridgid Finn (Roediger is a cognitive researcher who researches testing, spacing intervals, and repeated retrieval practice being key to long-term retention).

At it’s essence this article says a very simple thing — asking learners hard questions before engaging with the content, (i.e., by giving them a test) challenges learners to come up with an answer before they read the material or listen to a lecture, thereby improving recall of the material. That means not giving people the answer before they engage. That means expecting them to get it wrong, expecting them to fail.

Instructional designers often do the opposite. Give people the model or the answers, then test them. What if we were to test them first with hard questions? That would force people to think! To generate and hypothesize for themselves and begin to engage with the material. But that’s not what ID’s are suppose to do, right? It’s our material and instructional design that shows the way to enlightenment. How can learners be expected to know the answer before they see the material. They will probably get it wrong — and that’s ok. Getting it wrong helps people learn — people learn from their mistakes.

The author’s suggest the following study tactic:

Students might consider taking the questions in the back of the textbook chapter and try to answer them before reading the chapter. (If there are no questions, convert the section headings to questions. If the heading is Pavlovian Conditioning, ask yourself What is Pavlovian conditioning?). Then read the chapter and answer the questions while reading it. When the chapter is finished, go back to the questions and try answering them again. For any you miss, restudy that section of the chapter. Then wait a few days and try to answer the questions again (restudying when you need to). Keep this practice up on all the chapters you read before the exam and you will be have learned the material in a durable manner and be able to retrieve it long after you have left the course.

The technique they describe above is similar to the PQ4R (preview, question, read, reflect, recite, review) method for study materials – except they suggest: preview, question, test, then the 4R’s. The key difference being the test. It’s also similar to asking “why” questions to get people to engage with the material.

This research makes sense but elicits a bit of a “duh” response (“I needed research to tell me that?!?”).

What this research does not address is motivation and relevance¬† — people can go through the motions of taking a test, of asking “why” questions and still not really engage. Challenging test questions may get some students to engage, but is not panacea. It is a simply method that may work in certain circumstances — what would be really helpful to better understand those circumstances.

My takeaways:

  • test before you teach to challenge learners
  • use hard questions
  • allow learners to get the wrong answers
  • let them find the right answers
  • test again

Posted in cognition, instructional design.

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One Response

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  1. Tony Osime says

    Thank you for your interesting article.

    I recently conducted a pre-class multiple choice test then repeated the same test after the class. One of the 20 students passed the pre-class test while 18 passed the post-class test. The average improvement in the score was 29 points (from 50% to 79%).

    Compared to a previous class that did not do the pre-class test, they scored an average 6 points higher (79% v 73%) on the same quiz.

    These results show a significant potential increase in learning. However, we need to weigh this against the extra time and effort it takes to do the pre-test. On balance, I feel a pre-test gives a net benefit. However, it should be done efficiently – which boils down to “keep it simple”.



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