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How Testing Can Help Improve Your Learning Outcomes

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All of us have been subject to some form of testing or another growing up, the most obvious being testing in schools. In a Singaporean context, the results from tests taken throughout your life have the potential to affect your life trajectory.

For instance, the grade or score you achieve in the Primary School Leaving Examinations was used to sort you into different “streams” during secondary school. The results of the examinations taken at the end of secondary school (the GCE O-Level and GCE N(A)-Level) then affects what post-secondary education students are given access to. This cycle continues and for many students ends at a tertiary institute.

With that in mind, testing is commonly viewed as a means to an end i.e. we aim to excel in the tests we take just to make that next step or to land a spot in an institution for the next stage of education and eventually the workplace.

However, in addition to helping to rank and classify test-takers, there are benefits of test-taking in terms of learning.

Researchers Henry Roediger, Adam Putnam, and Megan Sumeracki have found that there are 10 benefits of testing, which you can read more about here.  In this post, I’ll go through what I feel the most important benefits are, purely from a learning perspective.


1. Testing Aids In Retention of Information

When information is retrieved from memory, it leads to better recall when one is tested on this same information later on, compared to just reading the information (known as passive learning). This is known as the testing effect, otherwise known as retrieval practice.

To put this into practice, whenever you are trying to learn something new, try and test yourself intermittently using quizzes or flashcards. It will be even better if you are given feedback when you have recalled unsuccessfully. It is important to note, however, that the success of the testing effect is influenced by the following factors:

  • The Success Rate of Retrieval
    For the testing effect to be demonstrated, there has to be a medium to high rate of retrieval success: if tests are too difficult, this will likely lead to poor encoding in memory, especially if proper feedback is not provided when wrong answers are given.
  • There Needs To Be A Delay Between Retrieval Practice and Testing
    In order for the testing effect to be effective, there needs to be a gap between the retrieval practice and the testing. That being said, try to practice retrieval of information consistently while leading up to your final test.
  • Difficulty Of Successful Retrieval
    According to the retrieval effort hypothesis, the more challenging a retrieval practice exercise is, the more likely the information is going to be retained.


2. Testing Helps To Identify Gaps In Knowledge

When it comes to learning something completely new, it’s very common that there is so much information that a learner can get overwhelmed. Simply put, you do know what you do not know.

Testing is one way to help learners focus their efforts when learning. If you take a test and can see that there is a particular topic in which you are lacking, this gives you the opportunity to focus more effort in that particular area.

A related benefit of knowing where you are lacking is that you have a better sense of your actual ability. When learners rely on just reading and rereading content, there is a possibility of being overconfident. When taken to the extreme, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.


3. Testing Improves Transfer Of Knowledge To New Contexts

When we set out to learn something new, one of the goals is to understand what we learn and apply it to different contexts. This phenomenon of using previously acquired information and skills in novel contexts is known as Transfer of Learning.

It is common to divide the transfer of learning into two types: Near and Far:

Near transfer refers to new situations which are similar to the learning situation.

In contrast, far transfer refers to new situations which are very different from the learning situation.

A common criticism of retrieval testing only produces better memory encoding for the facts that have been tested and this information don’t transfer well to different settings. However, a series of experiments was run and demonstrated that testing also enhanced the transfer of learned information into new situations, when compared against repeated studying.

In other words, testing helps you to apply what you learn better to new contexts.

Putting All This Together

We live in a world where continuous learning is becoming increasingly important. That being said, why not improve your learning outcomes by starting to incorporate testing into your learning?

If you would like to find out more about how you can use testing to improve learning outcomes, reach out to the SmartUp team at hello@smartup.io.