Testing Effect

Study Skills: The Testing Effect Explained

The Testing Effect is the finding that long-term memory is enhanced when much of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information.

Answer this question taken from research by Karpic, Butler, and Roediger (2009). Imagine you are reading a textbook for an upcoming exam. After you have read the chapter one time, would you rather:

Karpicke et al. (2009) found 57% of students gave answer A, 21% gave answer C, and only 18% gave answer B. What is interesting about the pattern of responses is that the least frequent answer (B) is actually the correct one in terms of its effectiveness in promoting good long-term retention.

As Pye and Rawson (2010, p. 335) pointed out, “An intuitive but incorrect assumption is that learning only occurs during study and that testing is useful only for evaluating the state of memory.” In fact, practice in retrieving the to-be-remembered information during the learning period can enhance long-term memory than simply engaging in study and restudy. This is known as the testing effect.

Convincing evidence of the testing effect was reported by Bangert-Drown, Kulik, and Kulik (1991) in a review of 35 classroom studies. A significant testing effect was obtained in 83% of these studies. In addition, the size of the effect tended to increase as the number of testing occasions went up.

How can one explain the testing effect?

Zaromb and Roediger (2010) addressed this issue in a study in which participants learned list consisting of words belonging to various categories (e.g., four-footed animals, articles of clothing). As expected, learners who had engaged in repeated retrieval practice performed better than those who had only engaged in study on a free-recall task two days later (39% correct vs. 17% correct, respectively). Of most theoretical importance, recall among those who had engaged in retrieval practice was more organized in terms of the categories contained in the lists.

The testing effect is typically associated with strong enhancement of long-term memory Opens in new window. Generally, this effect occurs because repeated retrieval facilitates the development of an effective retrieval structure (based on effective mediators and organizational processes) to facilitate access to information stored in long-term memory.

The success of mnemonic techniques such as the method of loci Opens in new window and the pegword system Opens in new window depends in large measure on the fact that they provide a pre-existing retrieval structure that guides the retrieval process.

As Dunlosky et al. (2013) pointed out, the use of repeated retrieval practice has the advantage that is generally applicable almost regardless of the nature of the to-be-learned material. In addition, it is a technique that is easy to use and does not require much training.