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Test Me Now, I’ll Thank You Later

I wish I could have taken a picture of every student’s face that walked into Mr. B’s middle school history class on Friday morning. It was always a struggle to get up on Fridays because I knew that my first class of the day always meant it was time for a quiz. All of my peers despised Mr. B for his quizzes to make sure that we had been paying attention all week and that we were keeping up with the information. “Isn’t that what tests are for? Why do we have to take a quiz every week?”

Teaching To The TestBeing tested frequently is something that students are most of the time not too fond of, but in the long run when you get the grade of your exam, you will thank the teachers that made you recall and tested you on the information learned every week! Recent research in cognitive psychology has provided strong evidence to support this notion.

Retrieval, the process by which information can be extracted from memory, is treated as an evaluative tool that reveals what people remember and what they have forgotten; retrieval shows what people know but it also changes what people know. From an educational perspective, it is important to understand that retrieval serves more than just the purpose of reinforcing memory of a tested fact! Cognitive psychologists have recently been seeking to provide educators with clear, effective advice on how to improve student learning.

Recent studies have shown that prior testing (retrieval practice) of related material can sometimes improve later recall of non-tested material; this phenomenon is called retrieval-induced facilitation. On the other hand, retrieval-induced forgetting is the phenomenon in which retrieval practice impairs later recall of non-tested material due to suppression in the studying phase. Retrieval-induced forgetting is the counterintuitive phenomenon in which retrieval practice impairs later recall of non-tested material. For example: after studying a list of fruits (banana, orange, apple) and performing retrieval practice on some words (orange, apple), recall of non-tested words (banana) will be impaired for a brief time afterwards. In search of how retrieval-induced facilitation and forgetting work together in retrieval, Jason C.K. Chan explored whether testing facilitated (helped) or hindered later retrieval of information.  He focused on two variables: the level of integration invoked during encoding and the length of delay between retrieval practice and the final test. In the high-integration condition, participants were given explicit instructions to read the two articles to ensure that they would be more likely to integrate the bits of information presented in the article.  Information was presented in a natural, coherent order. Those in the low-integration condition were told to read facts instead of articles that were presented in a random order, which was expected to disrupt integration of material.  In the short delay condition, participants took the final test 20 minutes after the retrieval practice. In the long delay condition, participants took the final test 24 hours after the retrieval practice.

Chan was able to draw several conclusions about retrieval practice, retrieving target information one or more times prior to being tested on the information, and how it is a powerful way to enhance long-term retention. Participants in Chan’s study read two articles and studied them in either a high-integration or low-integration condition.  Participants then were asked to perform a retrieval practice on one of the articles—with two conditions, either 20 minutes after retrieval or 24 hours after retrieval. Lastly, participants were tested by completing an Operation Span task (a task in which participants perform a simple math problem and then are presented with words that are later tested for recall) and answering a set of questions about the articles. His studies revealed that taking an intervening test between learning information and a delayed test can boost recall performance on the delayed test relative to a condition when no initial test is taken. Participants in a study by Chan performed better overall on the second test in comparison to the first.

The testing effect, the idea that retrieval practice can enhance long-term retention of the tested material compared to non-practiced items, was enhanced by both delay and integration. Recall probability dropped over time, and the testing effect increased with delay; integration increased the testing effect by enhancing recall of practiced items. Chan’s studies revealed that retrieval practice (being tested) can impair subsequent recall of the non-tested, related material. During the retrieval practice phase, suppression of non-practiced items serves to enhance retrieval of the practiced items. Facilitation was not seen when subjects simply restudied information instead of attempting to retrieve the practiced items. During the final, delayed test, there is a reduction in the recall probability of the non-practiced items compared to the practiced items—this is when suppression/inhibition is manifested. Retrieval-induced forgetting occurred when an independent cue (for example cuing banana with yellow) attempted to probe the non-tested information (banana), however the magnitude of forgetting was smaller with this probe than with studied cues.  Retrieval inhibition may occur with item (the representation of the banana) and association (linking fruit to banana) levels. This shows that retrieval plays an important role in recalling practiced items.

Understanding the conditions under which testing can help or harm later retrieval of initially non-tested information can serve two important purposes: from a theoretical perspective, it can extend the current understanding of the processes that are involved in retrieval and from an applied perspective, it can help psychologists provide clear and effective advice for educators to improve student learning. A better understanding of when retrieval-induced forgetting and retrieval-induced facilitation occur would allow educators to better apply testing as a learning tool to education.

Findings from Chan’s research can lead us to give advice to students and educators:

ADVICE FOR STUDENTS: Test yourself on the information several times prior to the actual exam in order to improve the information you will be able to recall and improve scores on the actual exam! Taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect on future retention of the material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material (the “testing effect”). Reading words over and over again will not directly translate into good encoding—but if you spend time reading and testing yourself on the information, your recall of that information will be augmented! If you are tested on material, you will remember the material much better than if you aren’t tested on it! Lastly, retrieval practice may slow forgetting; therefore, keep testing yourself so that you will continue to remember the information!

ADVICE FOR TEACHERS: More frequent testing will help students remember information in the long run; weekly quizzes aren’t such a bad idea—keep testing your students! Findings also suggest that the quicker students receive feedback on quizzes/tests, the more enhanced learning will be for your students!



Chan, J. C.K. (2009). When does retrieval induce forgetting and when does it induce facilitation? Implications for retrieval inhibition, testing effect, and text processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 61, 153-170.

Categories: Education, Memory Tags: , ,
  1. April 29th, 2013 at 22:52 | #1

    As much as I hate tests and quizzes… I’ve definitely found the testing effect to be true. I never thought to make myself “practice tests” to study for an exam. Instead, I preferred to make a study guide and read it over and over again. But I always had a hard time knowing how well I actually knew the material itself. This semester I’ve started turning my study guides into practice tests, and I can tell it’s made a huge difference on my test performance. And when I am too lazy to make a practice test, it shows in the form of a low grade. So If I’m going to take anything away from cognitive psych, it’s that practice testing is the way to an A!

  2. aspencer
    November 9th, 2013 at 18:28 | #2

    I think that it is interesting to process how testing is helpful with learning a different language. In Kang, Gollan, and Pashlers study “Don’t just repeat after me: Retrieval practice
    is better than imitation for foreign vocabulary learning,” they found that trying to retrieve the word before imitating the word helped best when it came time to the test. This practice seems like a small scale test that is easily implemented while study a foreign language.

  3. December 2nd, 2013 at 19:40 | #3

    I, also, will take this idea with me after this semester in cognitive psychology. I originally thought that obviously testing helps later performance because it forces students to study information earlier and more often in smaller chunks rather than cramming before a big exam, so each section gets more attention. But after taking this class as well as reading this post, I realize that frequent testing isn’t just about forcing someone to study but it actually reinforces memory. Although this difference is subtle, it has made a huge impact on the way I think about studying. I shouldn’t have to have a teacher give me a test to force myself to study because in reality, taking tests is the best way to study! It not only tests knowledge and memory of the material but also strengthens someone’s ability to remember the information to begin with. This, to me, is incredibly useful information that I will no doubt carry with me later in life.

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