Saturday, September 6, 2014

Taking the final exam on the first day of class helps learning

But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.

This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later. ...

The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar, whether geography, sociology or psychology. At least they do so in experiments in controlled laboratory conditions. A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.

The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. ...

We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. ...

The best way to overcome this illusion is testing, which also happens to be an effective study technique in its own right. ... Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916...

[In the 1930s, Herman] Spitzer wanted to extend the finding, asking a question that would apply more broadly in education: If testing is so helpful, when is the best time to do it?

He mounted an enormous experiment, enlisting more than 3,500 sixth graders at 91 elementary schools in nine Iowa cities. ...

The groups that took pop quizzes soon after reading the passage — once or twice within the first week — did the best on a final exam given at the end of two months, marking about 50 percent of the questions correct. (Remember, they had studied their peanut or bamboo article only once.) By contrast, the groups who took their first pop quiz two weeks or more after studying scored much lower, below 30 percent on the final. Spitzer’s study showed that not only is testing a powerful study technique, but it’s also one that should be deployed sooner rather than later. ...

If tests are most effective when given sooner rather than later, then why not go the distance? Why not give the final on the first day, as well as on the last?
--Benedict Carey, NYT Magazine, on the case for sooner and more frequent testing