Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Let’s begin with our possibly naive assumption that just about everyone would be a fan of easy-to-use but highly effective learning and study strategies. One example of such a strategy is practice testing, aka retrieval practice. In a nutshell, practice testing ‘forces’ learners to recall what they’ve previously learned from memory. Because they actively remember that information – retrieve it from their memory – they can remember it better and longer. There has been a huge amount of research done on this and we know that practice testing is one of the most effective learning/study strategies we know. Soderstrom and Bjork (2015) let us know that “decades of research suggests that the retrieval processes triggered by testing actually changes the retrieved information in important ways” (p 185).
In general, opponents of this strategy in particular, and of research into evidence-informed strategies in general, often say something like: “Of course it works in a controlled lab situation, but we’re talking about things that teachers and students in schools should (be able to) use and lab research doesn’t tell us anything about its use in the real world”. Well, this is their (un)lucky day!
The rest of this blog is based upon a systematic review article by Agarwal, Nunes and Blunt (2021) in which, after screening more than 2000 articles on practice testing/retrieval practice, 50 experiments were systematically coded for what was found about practice testing to get a clearer picture of the benefits in real educational settings. The review yielded 49 effect sizes (among 5374 students), of which 92% showed a significant effect and 57% even medium or large. In other words, practice testing seems to work; also in real educational contexts.
You/we might already have been convinced, yet this is strong evidence that we really can’t and shouldn’t deny.
Another argument that we often hear is something along the lines of “Maybe it works with older children or adults, but I don’t think it will work with very young children”. Fritz, Morris, Nolan, and Singleton (2007) conducted just such a study on practice testing in very young children, namely in toddlers! Just a note here: The study was not just about practice testing, but also about what they called ‘expanding retrieval practice’, which is a combination of practice testing and staggered or increasingly spaced practice. Such practice testing involves trying to retrieve things from memory a few times: First just after it has been presented and then repeatedly with gradually increasing time in between. In their view, this is an approach that’s very suitable for such young children.
They looked at ‘expanding retrieval practice’ in two studies. In Study 1, three groups of pre-schoolers (aged 2.5-5 years) learned the names for six plush toy pigs. One condition was a reward condition where the children were promised a reward for best effort (a sticker if they “tried their best”. Note, all children received a sticker regardless so as not to stress them out.
A second used expanded practice testing where the experimenter named the pig and the child had to say “hello” to it. A revisit had the child recall the name. If it was correct, the experimenter said “well done”. If not, the experimenter repeated the name and encouraged the child to say it. Finally, a control condition was included where there was just a presentation of the pigs and their names.
The results showed that learning and retention when those toddlers were given a reward was no better than the control condition, but that practice testing doubled how much they remembered.
However, methodologically speaking, this first study had a problem. The authors state:
…a confound in Experiment 1 limits clear interpretation of the results. In the expanding retrieval practice condition children typically spent longer interacting with the toys and heard the names more often. The focus of our research concerns the benefits of retrieval practice, so Experiment 2 removed this confound, isolating and examining the effects of spacing and retrieval. (p. 996-997)
Study 2 was similar to Study 1, but now the conditions were different. A massed elaboration group was created where the pigs and their names were presented several times and discussed with the child, repeating the name it the same number of times as the other two conditions. In an expanded practice testing the experimenter and the child each said the name of the toy once. First the experimenter named the toy and the child repeated it. It was then revisited where the child was asked the name. If it was correct, the experimenter enthusiastically agreed and repeated the name; if not, the experimenter provided the name and the child repeated it. In an expanded re-presentation (following the same schedule as expanded practice testing) the toy and its name were revisited a number of times where experimenter gave the toy’s name and the child repeated it; the child was not encouraged to recall the name. By doing this, “the amount of time that the children spent with each of the toys and the number of times that they heard and said the toy’s name were matched to the retrieval practice condition” (p. 997). The second condition was similar to traditional retrieval practice studies (except for the staggering) while the third was similar to traditional restudy conditions (ditto). Expanded practice testing led to better retention than the other two conditions and the re-presentation condition was better than the elaboration one.
The authors concluded that the success of expanded practice testing lies in both distributing the practice over time as well as practice testing.
And of course, we can already hear the doubters will: “But naming pigs isn’t a real-life learning situation!”. To this, the authors respond:
Clearly learning the names of toys is not an essential part of young children’s education, but other simple sets of associated information are. Young children are asked to learn basic letters, letter sounds, words, numbers, names of animals, names of objects, and much more. This sort of information is easily adapted to this sort of process. In fact, any information that can be presented on flash cards or in question-and-answer form is suitable. The key is to present the information, test it right away, before it is forgotten, and continue to test it at increasing intervals, before the information is lost. (p. 1002)
Based on this work – and much of the previous work done in this area – it’s fair to conclude that practice testing works in realistic classroom situations and expanded practice testing is an effective method for improving learning and retention, even in very young children.
Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A. & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research. 87, 659–701. doi:10.3102/0034654316689306
Agarwal, P. K., Nunes, L. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2021). Retrieval practice consistently benefits student learning: A systematic review of applied research in schools and classrooms. Educational Psychology Review. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09595-9
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
Fritz, C. O., Morris, P. E., Nolan, D., & Singleton, J. (2007). Expanding retrieval practice: an effective aid to preschool children’s learning. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 60(7), 991–1004. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470210600823595
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199.