Last month, the NYTimes ran an education article entitled How Tests Make Us Smarter, by Henry Roedigger [July 18, 2014]. The basic idea put forth in the article was that frequent testing begets frequent retrieval of the tested information; the more often we attempt to retrieve information as we learn it, the more sophisticated mental structures we create around it, the better it sticks.
Their research points to the conclusion that testing provides retrieval practice and, as such, works as a memory modifier – it strengths the information in the learner’s brain, making it more likely to be recalled later. In their article, Karpicke and Blunt cite the researcher, Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA who has, hands-down, the best lab name I’ve ever heard, “The Learning and Forgetting Lab”. Bjork is well-known in education circles for coining the phrase “desirable difficulties”. His cog psych research points to the conclusion that roughening up the learning path (“desirable difficulties”) leads to greater retention and comprehension. The practice conditions that produce desirable difficulties are spacing (distributing practice over time), interleaving (for example, mixing in equal parts tutorials and practice problems), and testing (retrieval). Bjork talks about the “study-study-study-TEST” model versus the (preferred) “study-test-test-test” model. I’ve blogged about Bjork’s work previously. Here is a good explanation of his research, When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, Courtney Clark and Robert Bjork (UCLA)
The key take-home in both Bjork’s and Karpicke’s work is the importance of using testing as a learning tool instead of just as an assessment tool. Frequent, low-stakes, formative testing, companioned with timely feedback, allows learners to strengthen their retrieval and rehearse the correct information.
With this research base in mind, the next natural step is to address the practical question of how best to provide regular retrieval practice? How to encourage practice that enhances learning in the classroom and doesn’t add to the feeling of being tested to death. To my mind, that’s where educational technology comes in. With tablets or laptops in the hands of each student in a wired classroom, educators can construct lesson plans around frequent, low-stake performances that provide regular feedback. For instance, reflective blog posts, short student presentations, practice problems, and peer-to-peer teaching in small groups.
The interesting thing about this way of looking at educational technology, is that it doesn’t drive the change – it becomes a facilitating tool. First you want to improve teaching/learning, next you examine what the educational literature tells us about what works, and then you look for the tools to help drive that change.