The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"To really learn, quit studying and take a test"

A new study from Purdue, discussed in this New York Times article, finds that students who take a test about material they've learned have 50% more recall of the material than those who either repeatedly study the material, or those who study and draw diagrams of it.

I can see immediately two important learning principles operative in these results: 

1. The test focuses attention and motivation, which always makes someone remember better and, as the writer mentioned, shows the person what they don't know, possibly interesting them in correcting their ignorance.

But do most students care about what they don't know? My observation is that many just want to get done with what they're studying to go on to the next requirement.

2. The article's analysis claims that testing requires active reconstruction of material, which helps recall. They used a free-form essay as the test in which the student reconstructed the material learned.

Actively reconstructing knowledge requires a person to not only recall what they've learned, but conceptually organize it and this does help with learning and retention.

But whether testing always helps is not clear to me. Multiple choice tests, so often used, require recognition of material rather than active recall and reconstruction. So the inference from this study, that testing results in better learning, is flawed. 

In Montessori, students study through learning materials, such as these. They are designed to illustrate concepts through real objects - a better way to fix knowledge in memory than mere paper and pen, as it engages the senses and the students' activity. 

And we use a three-period lesson to teach the student how to use each learning material:

1. Teacher names objects in material and demonstrates its use, with as few words as possible.
2. Student practices material, with teacher asking "show me this" etc.
3. Student demonstrates use of material/meaning to teacher, with the teacher asking "what's this" etc.

This last step requires the student to reconstruct his own knowledge in order to present it correctly - giving him an opportunity to see the gaps, like a test. When a child thinks he has mastered the material, he can ask the teacher to "test out" of it by demonstrating how much he knows about using it.


carterson2 said...

I went to Purdue. They have intense competitive testing. Very unlike other schools I went to. Their testing elevates each test because almost all students have access to old tests. IMHO this makes for a superior (although suicidal) learning.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Having access to old tests is a great learning tool and, of course, competitive testing suits the competitive tendencies of many highly achieving students.

The problem I find is that the testing can become the be-all and end-all of the process, instead of the learning. This is not only because students need to get high scores to go on to graduate school, etc., but because the human tendency to be competitive is so strong.

Since competitive tendencies are so strong, they can overwhelm the desire to learn as a primary motive.

Yet, self-motivated learning is such an important feature for adult success and for creative innovation. This is why it is so important to nurture self-motivated learning - and I think we need to radically reduce testing to do that.

carterson2 said...

Depends on the major I suppose. I do appreciate "projects" and "writing" as opposed to memorization... 'Trade off of "easy to grade" vs "self learning"...