Tag Archives: exams

Testing for Learning – A Collection of Resources

23 Jan

Why “Testing for Learning”?  Because well-timed, cumulative  or spaced quizzing can work to disrupt forgetting, to reinforces retention and retrieval; and to shine a light on what we don’t know.  

Why “Testing for Learning” as the semester beings?  Creating good quizzes, and exams, whether in common or alternative formats, requires a significant amount of teacher planning time. Similarly, students will need time and coaching across a course to learn how to study in new ways that support knowledge retention and retrieval.

You’ll find two things in this post: (1) An orienting “Test for Learning” video developed by the University of Minnesota the Academic Technology Support Services unit, along with a transcript below to supplement the Closed Caption text embedded within the video, or to serve as the main text for people who either prefer narrative reading to video viewing/captioning, or who prefer having access to each of these modes. (2) An selection of possible follow up posts, each one accompanied by a brief annotation and shortened hyperlink.



Let’s consider testing as a tool for learning and long-term retention. This is not the same as testing to demonstrate learning. Testing or quizzing is a powerful formative learning strategy because it disrupts forgetting; reinforces retention and retrieval of knowledge, and shines a light on what learners don’t know. In the online environment quizzing has the added benefit of being efficient and scalable.

In this brief module we will look to the research for principles of learning and simple strategies to make quizzing an impactful part of the learning environment.

Which is a more effective studying technique – self quizzing or rereading and re-studying? Re-reading and re-studying are often preferred by students who mistake familiarity with the text and all of its contextual cues with real learning. But consider that actively recalling information and concepts from memory reinforces neural pathways and strengthens recall. In contrast rereading is passive and therefore less impactful. Make no mistake quizzing is better.

An age-old approach to testing is cramming, called massed practice in the literature. There’s a good reason why generations of students turn to cramming: Focused repetitive practice with no brakes can result in very good test scores. The catch is that the learning that results is short-term. Cramming might be a reliable way to perform well on a test but it is not a reliable way to create a foundation of knowledge. Blocked practice, another naming for cramming, describes practicing and mastering one skill before advancing to the next skill. Drills and sports are often organized this way, so our textbooks’ blocked practice feels right because practicing the same skill over and over again leads to improvement during the practice session. But gains during games are limited as blocked practice does not promote transference of knowledge and skills because this rote learning is less useful to us in new situations.

When it comes to learning, effort matters. Effortful retrieval changes the brain by reinforcing neural connections, strengthening recall and moving information from short-term to long-term memory. Learning that is easy doesn’t stick.

What we call desirable difficulty includes trying to recall from memory information about a reading or a lecture.

Let’s consider some other simple strategies.

Spaced practice means allowing time to pass between practice sessions in order to move information from short-term into long-term memory the brain must consolidate that information. This is the process of organizing and stabilizing information consolidation happens over time. This is particularly relevant for scaffolded learning. When designing assignments keep in mind that students need time to process information before they go on to the next step in the sequence. Spaced practice, which recognizes the role that time plays in learning is the alternative to massed practice. Interleaved practice is another useful learning strategy. Interleaved practice means “mixing it up” during a practice session. Whether you are practicing math problems or golf swings or identifying, bird specimens interleaved is more powerful than blocked practice because it approximates real-world problem solving: It puts information into a larger context, which requires learners to engage conceptual knowledge, exercise judgment, and be aware of contextual cues. It’s harder and that’s a good thing.

Follow Up Resources

What makes a great exam? On creating active learning exams: http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-1kg

Team-Based Final Exams, which build on skills build & knowledge assessed throughout the semester: http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-16w

Exams as Learning Experiences. On alternative exam formats, and aligning assessments and aims: http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-15s

Creating Exams – A Few Considerations: On designing exams, and engaging students in learning rather than cramming practices: http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-1I

Because Cramming Doesn’t Work, which shares a selection of “Learning to Learn Resources” for Students and Teachers in anticipation of preparing for quizzes, tests, exams, assessments: http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-Mg

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