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The Wonderful Results of the Exam-A-Day Professor

Most of the studies on retrieval practice (adjudged to be the best learning technique for students) were done in a controlled laboratory setting. But like…

Most of the studies on retrieval practice (adjudged to be the best learning technique for students) were done in a controlled laboratory setting.

But like many chapters in this book demonstrate, the effect of retrieval practice works in the real world too; an important chunk of that real-world being the classroom.

Therefore, this chapter determines to answer two questions: should we use testing, quizzing or exam as a tool to assess how much a student has learned or we can also use testing as a learning event? Two, can testing improve students performance in online learning during a health crisis such as the season of COVID-19?

Here’s how one professor figured it out.

“In 2002, Leeming used an “exam-a-day” approach to teaching an introductory psychology course. He found that students who completed an exam every day rather than exams that covered large blocks of material scored significantly higher on a retention test administered at the end of the semester,” Brame and Biel reported in their 2015 review of retrieval practice.

Later, a 2009 study found that retrieval practise helped medical students’ performance.  ”Larsen, Butler, and Roediger asked whether a testing effect was observed for medical residents’ learning about status epilepticus and myasthenia gravis, two neurological disorders, at a didactic conference. Specifically, residents participated in an interactive teaching session on the two topics and then were randomly divided into two groups,” Brame and Biel wrote.

They were given two topics. One group studied a review sheet on the first topic (myasthenia gravis) and took a test on the second topic (status epilepticus). The other group, however, started with a test on the first topic and studied a review sheet on the second topic.

Six months later, the residents were asked to complete a test on both topics. The results show that the testing condition averaged scores that were 13% higher than the study condition.

It works in a statistics class too. Lyle and Crawford in their 2011 paper, described the effect of retrieval practice in an undergraduate statistics class. A section of the course was asked to spend the last five or 10 minutes of the class to answer about four questions to recall what they just learned from the lecture.

Another section of the course was however not subjected to this process. Results showed that there was a statistical significance between the two sections. Those who used retrieval practise during the course of the semester performed 8% higher than the other section. This may not sound much, but it was significant; meaning that the testing effect alone made a huge difference.

We see that the test-enhanced technique works in the in-person classroom, but does this translate to the online classroom setting? In the age of coronavirus where every school is going online, it would be magnificent if the benefits of retrieval practice are not lost through the cracks of the internet.

Well, it appears that research has found an answer to this question. In  2012, McDaniel, Wildman and Anderson explored the benefits of quizzing in enhancing academic performance to see if such evaluations would work outside the laboratory. using a web-based class, participants were quizzed using multiple-choice and short answer questions. Multiple attempts were allowed and immediate feedback was provided.

When exam questions were similar to the quizzes earlier answered by participants, both the multiple-choice and short answer questions improved performance in the examination over rereading the target material.

When the exam questions were related but different from the earlier quizzes, both types of quizzes benefited the students in answering unquizzed targeted material. What this means is that retrieval practice helps students answer unrelated questions too. Even though in this case, the increase in exam performance over rereading was nominal. (For an insight into how this works, read the chapter on how Muslims memorize the Qur’an.)

Based on the findings, McDaniel and colleagues concluded that indeed the testing effect extends to the classroom, saying ”these experimental results indicate that unsupervised on-line quizzing in a college course enhances exam performance, thereby representing an important extension of laboratory testing effects into the classroom setting.”

But this is not the only study where online quizzes helped enhance students’ performance. In 2013, Rebecca Orr and Shellene Foster considered students’ oft-repeated protest about the time invested in studying not favourably helping their performance in exams. The authors wrote: ”Students often complain about their perceived disconnect between the time and effort spent studying and their subsequent performance on exams.”

Therefore, following Robert Bjork’s analysis which  contends that recovery of stored information functions ”as a memory modifier, and that using tests as learning events creates ’desirable difficulties that enhance learning,’” Orr and Foster examined ”the effect of utilizing testing as a learning event in the introductory biology classroom.”

Like McDaniel and colleagues, they used ”an online homework platform to give required quizzes throughout the course.”

Their results showed three significant insight. One, those students who took 100% of the pre-exam online quizzes performed significantly better than the students who took 0% of the pre-exam quizzes. Two, those who did the pre-exam quizzes also scored considerably greater exam average than the class exam average. Three, the results demonstrated that quizzing benefits students of different abilities.

Based on the findings,  Orr and Foster concluded that “Pre-exam quizzing using an online homework platform is an effective way to increase student performance on exams”  and recommend that doing so “allows class time to be utilized for teaching activities.”

Similarly, in a paper published online in 2017 by Stanger-Hall and colleagues, the authors found a marked difference between students taught retrieval and those who were not.

They addressed the concerns of university teachers who worry that new students struggled with critical thinking. Earlier research had found that the study strategies used by students in high school were not sufficient in the university. Therefore, in large introductory classes, the students struggled.

Therefore, the purpose of their research was to “teach students self-regulating techniques with visualization-based exercises as a foundation for learning and critical thinking in two areas: information processing and self-testing.”

They found that the self-testing had a long term effect of up to 10 weeks and the students who were taught the “how-to study” workshop performed better than the control group in the final exam.

The authors, therefore, concluded that “This long-term (10 wk) retention of a self-testing effect across question levels and student achievement is a promising endorsement for future large-scale implementation and further evaluation of this “how to study” workshop as a study support for introductory biology (and other science) students.”

In sum, in an age where teachers and parents are searching for a sustainable way to teach students effectively and making knowledge sticky, research has established that retrieval practice or test-enhanced technique or the testing effect is indeed a useful option that does not only work in the laboratory but also in the classroom, including the online classroom. It makes learning sticky too. Those who did active retrieval having been to remember lessons after 10 weeks, six months and even eight years – as the chapter on foreign language demonstrates.


This is a chapter from (an unpublished) book by Dr Ibraheem Dooba, ”The Secret of Straight-A Students.”

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