Monday, January 24, 2011

Learning for -- and from -- the test

Pam Belluck's article, "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test," N.Y. Times, Jan. 20, 2011, reports on a study asking what enables students to recall material best. In one experiment, the researchers compared four techniques: "One [group] did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions. A third group engaged in 'concept mapping,' in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way. The final group took a 'retrieval practice' test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test." (paragraph breaks omitted).

It turned out that the students in the last group retained more information -- 50 % more, evidently -- than those in the second and third groups (from the Times' report it seems the students in the first group, who read the passage once for five minutes, must have served as something like a no-recall control group). A second experiment, comparing just concept-mapping and testing, also found that the tested students "did much better."

These are very interesting experiments, but for now I want to make just one observation: What these experiments appear to show is that the way to increase recall is to practice recalling. Put that way, these experiments really shouldn't be surprising. If they are -- and apparently they are -- that's a measure of how confused our thinking about learning has become.

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