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Could The Experts Be Wrong?!

In the field of cognitive psychology, it is widely believed that testing is the best way for a person to learn. Many studies have been conducted to establish the differences in retention between initial testing and the restudying of information. These studies found that final recall has greatly supported that when people are retested they retain more of the learned information. During testing, people make meaningful connections within their minds to understand what they are learning, this allows for more comprehensive recall later on. Students are forced to process the information deeper during testing than when they are simply rereading the information. This strategy has been something that many psychologists have been trying to get implemented into school systems and teaching styles. As a student, having to be tested all the time is not something I want. I also frequently find myself questioning if it really is as beneficial as the so-called experts say. There are some things that, no matter how many times I am tested on it and how many times I study it, I am simply unable to understand. A recent study by Bridger and Mecklinger questioned the benefits of this testing idea, and found that it may only work with certain kinds of information. Their research brought to light the idea of errorful learning, which is similar to testing yourself as a study method, and errorless learning, which is more like reviewing information as a study method. They attempted to draw attention to the fact that errorful learning may not be the most beneficial strategy to long-term retention.



Think about what type of information you are most likely to be stumped by. Usually this information is in the form of questions that have only a couple options, and you just can’t seem to remember which is the right one. Foreign language is a good example of this. If you’re anything like me, case selection is your nemesis. Cases are frustrating, confusing, and I can never seem to get them right. That is because they are what is considered “high constraint stimulus”, which means there are only a few options that could be the correct answer and they are all pretty similar. I have unintentionally made connections between the wrong cases in my mind every time I have been tested on it and given the wrong answer, and these connections seem to only get stronger over time.

The things I have found I have benefitted most from being tested on connected to reading and comprehending a story or bigger topics. When I read something and then have to take a test on what I just read, I am able to make connections with that information. I have to consciously think about the information I learned and look at the whole picture and then answer the related questions. This type of stimuli is called “low constraint stimulus,” which is stimulus that has many options and connections. There are more connections in the mind with this type of stimuli so when you answer incorrectly the reinforcement of that answer is not particularly strong and will not make a huge impact in the long run.

In Bridger and Mecklinger’s study, they looked at the idea that maybe errorful learning isn’t as overall beneficial as it is believed. You cannot take a test on information that you do not already know and expect for it to help you. They looked at errorful and errorless learning and tried to find the strengths and weaknesses of each when it came to final recall. Errorful learning is the kind of learning, which is like guessing answers before you have learned the information. Errorless learning is when the “question” and “answer” are given at the same time so that no incorrect connections can be made.

In the study, Bridger and Mecklinger found that errorful learning was much better with low constraint stimuli, such as reading a story and being tested on it, just as studies had shown. What the other studies never looked at though, was how poorly participants did with errorful learning and high constraint stimuli. Participants were given a prompt and then a delay in time before they were shown the correct answer. That delay gave them time to make up their own connections. Those connections that they made initially during that time delay held great pull in their mind over the correct answer. Errorless learning allowed participants to perform much better with high constraint stimuli, which would be like reading and rereading a worksheet on the case types in your foreign language. With errorless learning, incorrect connections were not being made within the smaller number of stimuli. If a mistake is made initially when you are learning a topic that is similar to something else, it is much harder to break that connection. This finding showed it is actually better not to test yourself right after learning new information that can be easily confused within a topic. Every time you accidentally say that something in the “genitive case” is actually in the “accusative case” you are making a connection between the details of what the genitive case is and the name “accusative case”. Very quickly it becomes a habit to think they are connected and very hard to break the connection. It is better to work with the information in front of you so that you cannot get it wrong until you no longer have to look at it to know what the right answer is.




So next time you are studying for an exam, take a look at the kind of information you need to know. If it is information that is broad and has many connections to be made, use the self-testing method. Make yourself flashcards, take practice tests. If the information is a bit more meticulous, take the time to really learn it before you test it. Keep all the information in front of you as you practice it. Yes, testing is beneficial for learning, but it has to be done the right way, and it can’t be done too early with very detail oriented information or else you could just be hurting your ability to learn it correctly in the long run.

The original article can be found above under the link “errorful and errorless testing”


Bridger, Emma, K., Mecklinger, Axel, (2014), “Errorful and Errorless learning: The impact of cue-target constraint in learning form errors.” Memory and Cognition. 2014.;Published: 11, March 2014. 1-9







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  1. October 4th, 2014 at 14:49 | #1

    This article was extremely interesting to me as a student who is constantly being tested on new material. Since I was in high school, I have been told that taking tests and testing myself is one of the best ways to learn. Of course that is always stressful because tests in general are stressful. In cognitive psychology this semester, we are being quizzed on material every few weeks or so in order to enhance our learning and memory for the information we are being taught. Logan’s Instance Theory shows that the more times someone has to come across a problem and answer it, the more memory traces are created and the easier it is for someone to solve the problem. Basically, the more times you are asked a question, the more likely it is that you will learn it and be able to call it to mind easily. This article was very interesting to me because it has a slightly different take on self testing. The article says that if you start to test yourself on very complicated information before you fully learn it, you may actually be hurting yourself because its possible that you will learn it the wrong way. This makes a lot of sense to me, because as someone who uses the self testing strategy all the time to learn information, I have often found that if I don’t know the information well enough before I try self test myself, I often get incredibly frustrated and discouraged. This is an important article for students to read because it helps point out the ways to self test properly. Trying to engage and learn the information before you start to self test is helpful. It also shows how important it is to ask question and get clarity when you’re confused so that you don’t learn the information wrong. In the future, I will use the information I learn in this article to self test myself in a way that is the most beneficial for learning.

  2. Emily Doyle
    October 7th, 2014 at 22:35 | #2

    Cool article! As a student who is currently on week two of midterm week, testing is on my mind. Growing up I had often heard the mantra “test yourself, you’ll learn better” and have adopted it before many a test. Not only the authority of my teachers and professors back this statement up, but also other research. Shanna Grant’s post “Tests don’t have to be bad!” and Sarah LoTemplio’s post “Why those who force you to take exams are not actually terrible people” are examples of this. Both of those articles maintain that testing, just testing, can help you at any stage of learning to really know the material. Sarah even goes to the extent of saying “No matter how you learned it, why you learned it, or what you learned, a practice test will help you” while summing up her article. However, I really enjoyed the new view that this article presented, which was basically that some material is better when tested upon than others. Material that is broad and links easily to other material is good to be tested on, but material that is more meticulous in nature can actually be learned better by practicing before you test. Otherwise you can learn things wrong by testing yourself on detail oriented material, and confusing yourself on what the right answer really is. This article reminded me of what I have recently learned in my cognitive psychology class about memory. One malfunction of memory we learned about is bias, a memory sin of commission. Sins of commission are where we remember incorrect info. Bias, as a sin of commission, is how our current beliefs affect our reconstruction of the past. The retrieval made from long term memory stores is biased by what we think about the event being remembered. I thought this was quite relevant in this article because if a person tests themselves before they really understand material, they can think differently about the material, and use the sin of bias to reconstruct what they have learned. I’m glad I read this article, because now I know to test myself on information that is broad or that I am very clear on, leaving practice for the material that is meticulous or unclear. I hope to use this information in studying for my upcoming tests!

  3. Kacie Wrean
    October 18th, 2015 at 12:40 | #3

    This article was interesting for me to read as a student and as a future teacher. As a student now, I am working hard to learn as much information as I can correctly for exams and for the purpose of knowledge and understanding. In my mind, I had kind of realized the idea of errorful learning and its relationship to testing, especially in those moments during multiple choice tests where two or three answers all seemed correct. I would find myself struggling to remember what I knew and also rationalizing all the possible answers, making them all sound reasonable or correct, and then find myself making those same connections later on, leading to another incorrect answer. This article mentions these kinds of mistakes happening in languages, but I also find this happening during history multiple choice tests, or really any multiple choice test. I think the type of questions being asked and the possible answers provided makes a big difference in the kind of connections made between the question and the answer because I think it could happen even on a reading comprehension test if the test was multiple choice. Now that this effect of different types of learning has been demonstrated, the next step for researchers should be to try to distinguish between the effects of the content being tested and the types of questions and answers to see which has a larger impact on the kinds of incorrect connections being made during test-taking.

  4. October 21st, 2015 at 23:39 | #4

    In a similar sentiment to many of the other comments, I found this article very helpful as a student who is tested a considerable amount. Though I am in a discipline where “self test” often means doing practice problems (math and computer science), I feel like these are some of the situations where self testing are beneficial because there are a lot of higher level topics to make connections between. I have also taken courses where I do see the affects that this article is speaking of. For example, in a biology course, I was tasked with memorizing a large amount of complicated scientific words. My tactic for studying was using flashcards which was extremely helpful except for a few cases. For a few words, the first time I tested myself and I got it wrong, that was the connection I made and kept, so when I was tested later I still answered incorrectly because of that original wrong connection. This was a very frustrating phenomenon which would take a lot more effort with studying and self-testing to right the wrong association in my head. In relation to memory and encoding errors due to interference, I wonder if proactive and retroactive interference could play a role in what is happening in the harmful effects that self testing has on newly learned, similar material. Proactive interference is when old information affects the learning of new information, and retroactive information is when new information affects old information. In the type of problems and subjects that this article talks about, it seems like cases where self testing is not good is where there is meticulous, similar, and a lot of information that you are trying to learn (like all of the examples given i.e. biology vocab, psychology quizzes, foreign language grammar). With a lot of similar information being learned at the same time, proactive and retroactive interference can impact how the information is learned, and could be the reason for some of these incorrect connections being made. I think this article and the insights learned from it is relevant to any student in a wide range of subjects. It is also something teachers should keep in mind with how to encourage students on how to study certain material.

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