Teaching Tip: The past is always with us.

This week’s principle from the Lifelong learning at Work and at Home website focuses on prior knowledge:

New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.

This principle stresses the importance of getting to know our students so we can help them learn more effectively.  From infancy onward, learning is based on building new mental connections that physically change brain structure.  Our brains are not built to remember unconnected facts; if material doesn’t relate to something else that is important to us, we forget.  Not only do we need prior experiences as an anchor, but the quality of our prior assumptions, conceptual knowledge and biases can all influence what we learn, for better or worse. Despite these well known findings, most of us do little to discover what our students already know (or think they know) about our disciplines. And yet, that prior knowledge may make or break their chances for success in our classes.

Why is prior knowledge so important?  Studies comparing novices and experts in a variety of fields suggest that prior knowledge is vital to the ability to access and use what we know. For example, chess experts are able to remember meaningful patterns of chess pieces much better than novices.  However, when asked to remember the positions of randomly placed pieces, experts performed no better than novices.  When the information was meaningful, the chess experts were able to “chunk” information (i.e. organize and classify it) much more efficiently than novices and then remember those larger chunks.  Instead of seeing a certain number of pieces on the board in certain places, experts see a classic opening move and relate that information to their extensive prior experience with opening moves.

How can we help students develop more effective knowledge structures within our disciplines?  Our strategies depend on the students’ current developmental level, both generally and in the context of specific disciplines.  In introductory courses, students generally have very limited ways of understanding and organizing knowledge.  But they do have life experiences, and these are important in making those first connections.  That’s why many skilled lower level instructors spend a lot of time helping students relate what they are learning to the world around them and their existing interests.  A student may not know much about biology, but she knows that everyone wants her to use hand sanitizer all winter.  From this simple observation, a series of questions naturally presents itself that can be used to build understanding.

In introductory courses we typically don’t find (or expect) students to show a sophisticated grasp of disciplinary concepts.  Unfortunately, we often find something more difficult to change: a mental framework that’s a bit dented or missing critical pieces. Misconceptions and incorrect information can distort and limit student learning, especially at the introductory level.  Unfortunately, since this incorrect information is also anchored in prior knowledge, it can be resistant to change.  Discovering common student misconceptions and designing experiences that challenge them is a critical part of building new levels of expertise.  Experiments, demonstrations, videos and other active methods that directly challenge student misconceptions are often the most powerful since they use multiple channels and can have more emotional impact than lecture or readings.  It takes a powerful stimulus to dislodge embedded rust.  However, experience is best when it is paired with explanations and principles to help students organize their new experiences effectively.  Or, as another of the core learning principles put it: Experience alone is a poor teaching. 

As students advance in the discipline, they begin to develop their own knowledge structures. In these upper level classes it’s important to find out what students already know so that you don’t try to build on knowledge that isn’t there.  Having a good understanding of prior knowledge can also help you advise students – someone with gaps that are just too large may need to take a pre-requisite course, while others may need to be referred for tutoring in specific areas.  Other students may be able to skip some topics, or take a more in-depth approach.  There are many ways to assess prior learning.  Some faculty members assess prior knowledge using pre-tests or writing assignments that identify strengths and weaknesses. A drawback of testing or writing assignments of course is the time it takes to read and analyze them, even though they are typically ungraded.  Asking students to draw a concept map of important content is a quick way to show you what students think is important and also gives you a picture of how they organize that information.  Another approach is the Knowledge survey.  This type of survey is often quite lengthy, but students are not actually asked to answer the questions as they would be on an exam.  Instead, they rate their level of knowledge of each concept or process on a three point scale from absolute certainty to complete ignorance.  These surveys can be scored electronically and they provide a quick snapshot of the class that can guide you to focus your time in class more productively.  Administering the same survey at the end of the course provides a check up on how effectively you were able to reach your goals; ideally you will see upward movement for the class as a whole and for individual students as well.

The importance of prior knowledge is also evident when we discuss transfer of learning. Many students can repeat information or use it in similar situations but, unlike experts, they may not recognize appropriate but unfamiliar applications of a concept or procedure.  The ability to recognize when and how prior information can be used in new settings is the key behind transfer of learning and also depends on how knowledge is structured in the brain. Direct instruction in relating features of the new environment or situation to the prior one can build a path to transfer, along with a lot of guided practice. Thus, presenting students with varying situations you may have to first cue the students to apply what they know, and then help them learn to recognize cues for themselves.

Above all, it’s important to realize that students’ prior knowledge and their methods for organizing it are very dissimilar from your own.  Not only did they grow up in a different world (just check the Beloit College Mindset if you doubt that) but they have not had the wealth of training and experience in your discipline that you do.  Many of us struggle with getting our minds back to that beginner stage so that we can think like students and anticipate where they need help.  If you’d like to develop that very important sense of empathy, take a challenging class in something completely new to you.  You’ll be amazed to discover how much you attempt to use your prior knowledge to anchor new material and how many misconceptions you may have!  Plus, you will experience both the frustration and the exhilaration of making progress.

Next up:  we will finish this series with the final principles of active learning, less is more and choosing what to forget.


Teaching Tip: Variety is the spice of learning

This week’s post summarizes and comments on two closely related principles from the Life Long Learning at Work and at Home website.

Principle 2: Varying learning conditions makes learning more effortful but results in enhanced long-term retrieval.

Principle 3:  Learning is generally enhanced when learners are required to take information that is presented in one format and “re-represent” it in an alternative format.

Both of these principles emphasize how important it is to vary the conditions of learning if we want students to remember and use information once they leave the classroom.  In order to understand why variability is important, it is helpful to understand how our brains store and access the things we learn.

Essentially, humans can process information in two systems, visuospatial and auditory-verbal. Information can be stored in either one of these two systems or in both of them.  According to the most commonly accepted theory in cognitive psychology, information that has been stored in both systems is more easily recalled than information that is only stored in one system or the other, so when we ask students to process information in varied ways, they are able to use multiple cues from both systems to help them remember.

One way to vary learning conditions is to present information in both major modes. For example, a reading assignment might be paired with an exercise where students must extract information from a video, a picture or a chart.  If you are in a field that is primarily visual, asking students to read about what they are seeing provides similar variation.  One caveat here – the students have to actually use both modalities.  If the students find that they can succeed using only one method, they will naturally tend to skip the other one.  Our challenge is twofold – finding good ways to use both modes and organizing our classes so that students must use them both in order to succeed.

Varying modes of presentation has distinct advantages in a classroom with diverse learners.  We all have cognitive strengths and preferences – some of us prefer auditory learning while others are visual (and still others prefer a kinesthetic approach, but that’s another story). Research on these learning style preferences suggests that trying to personalize instruction based on individual learning style does not enhance learning, and when you consider the dual storage theory, it makes sense that using multiple presentation modes with all students will provide the kind of variability that leads to increased effort and storage in both systems.  Plus, when multiple styles are used, everyone has the chance to use both their preferred and non-preferred styles.  This can help students who are non-traditional learners since it gives them a shot at the material using their preferred style as well as practice that can improve their non-preferred skills.

Not only can you vary the presentation mode (the input channels, if you will) but you can also vary the output channels to enhance retention and learning transfer.  Asking students to draw pictures or create graphical representations such as concept or knowledge maps that summarize the main points of a reading assignment or lecture works well for this purpose.  Research suggests that graphical representations are particularly useful because they force students to think about the types of relationships between concepts and information.

Assigning a concept or knowledge map exercise is most helpful if students have some prior instruction on how to complete the task. O’Donnell, Dansereau & Hall (2002) provide a good overview of knowledge maps and how to use them.  You can ask students to construct their own knowledge maps or you can give them knowledge maps instead of or along with texts and lectures.  Research indicates that giving students knowledge maps that you have constructed can help students (especially weaker students or non-native speakers) grasp material more effectively.  Giving your students pre-constructed maps might be more appropriate for less advanced classes, while students in advanced classes can be challenged to produce their own.

In addition to concept and knowledge maps, arguments and problem solving procedures also are good candidates for visual diagramming methods.  The University of Texas Center for Teaching and Learning presents a simplified version of diagramming arguments while this pdf presents a more detailed and formal  version drawn from philosophy.

Principle 2 above also indicates the downside (at least from the student perspective) of using variable learning conditions – the need for more effort.  When students are asked to learn material under varied conditions or “re-present” material in a different format, as in Principle 3, they have to work harder. The bottom line is obvious to the point of being somewhat trite.  When learning requires more investment of effort, it is more likely to be retained

Because of the increased effort required, students may seem to learn more slowly when you vary the conditions of learning.  Don’t despair and don’t give up.  When a single modality is used (e.g. readings and lectures accompanied by exams – all verbal mechanisms) both you and the students may falsely assume that they understand the material on a deep level.  Requiring students to use different methods and media for their learning may result in poorer performance initially, but the research suggests that long term learning is enhanced.

You are likely to hear from students that multimodal work is harder than traditional single-channel methods.  Validate their correct observations!  Students need to understand why you are “doing this to them.”  Sometimes students who are very able in one modality (like most college professors) are particularly resistant to trying new and challenging modes.  And many of us are reluctant to leave our comfort zone as well.  But the research is quite clear that doing so enhances learning and transfer.

What methods do you already use to vary the conditions of learning in your classes?  What would you like to know more about? 

If you want to read further:   

The Lifelong Learning at Work and at Home website provided these summarizes and recommends these articles for additional reading

Mayer, R. E. (1993). Illustrations that instruct. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 254-284). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  This book chapter explores the uses of text and illustrations as teaching aids, primarily in textbooks.  The author examines how different types of illustrations (i.e., decorative, representational, organizational, and explanative) affect cognitive processes—selecting, organizing, or integrating information—that are involved in learning.  Explanative illustrations show how elements in a system are related and underlying principles governing the system.  Although underused in textbooks, these types of illustrations best promote all three types of cognitive processing that enhances learning.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of structure strategy training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141-59.  Training older and younger adults to use textual cues that highlight conceptual relationships improved their overall recall of the text as well as recall for main ideas.  Training produced positive transfer to remembering everyday materials such that these individuals also better recalled details from informative videos, relative to individuals who were given motivational training or no training.

Wallace, D. S., West, S. W. C., Ware, A., & Dansereau, D. F. (1998). The effect of knowledge maps that incorporate gestalt principles on learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 67, 5-16.  Learning aids were presented in one of three different formats: text, unenhanced map, and enhanced map.  The enhanced map differed from the unenhanced map in that it used the gestalt principles of similarity and proximity to group related concepts.  Those who studied using enhanced maps demonstrated superior recall over those using unenhanced maps or text.



O’Donnell, A.M., Dansereau, D.F. & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14 (1), 71-86


Coming up next:  The importance of prior knowledge to present learning.

Use Cognitive Research to Enhance Teaching: Practice at Retrieval

Welcome back!  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get the blog up and running again, so I hope this post will be the first of several this semester.

As scholars, we are always looking for high quality research related to our disciplines and the courses we teach.  Why not apply that lens to learning?  The field of cognitive psychology has developed dramatically over the past 20 years or so, and we now have quite a large body of research describing how people learn.  I don’t want to overwhelm you with data, so I am going to create a series of posts that describe nine primary principles of learning and how they apply in our classrooms.

The nine principles and some of the examples in these posts come from the Lifelong Leaning at Work and at Home initiative website.  This initiative was started by a group of cognitive researchers dedicated to applying cognitive science research to lifelong learning and higher education.   The website has detailed links to more in-depth information and references if you would like to dig deeper.

This just means that students need multiple opportunities to recall and use information or skills that you want them to remember after your class is over.  If students merely re-read notes or books without practicing retrieving what they have heard and read, they will not retain that material for long.  My first reaction to this statement was “well, duh” but the “single most important” label made me pay more attention, as well as the mention of transfer.

If this statement is correct (and there is quite a lot of research to back it up) what does it imply for the classroom?  What can we do to help students practice retrieving important information?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Align your classroom activities, assignments and tests so that students must repeatedly access the same information.  For example, ask students questions that require them to recall and demonstrate understanding of material from earlier in the course.  You may want to pose a probing question and have everyone write down a response before you ask for volunteers – that way the entire class gets to practice retrieving information.  Otherwise, only the individuals called on will be engaging in this important task.  This technique also allows you to correct any misunderstanding and it shows students the cumulative nature of learning.  At first, you may get blank stares but if you do this consistently students are more likely to get the message.
  • Test repeatedly on the same material.  My undergraduate self hated the cumulative final exam with great passion, but it is an excellent method for promoting long term retention and retrieval – but only if the material has already been tested earlier in the semester.   You also can get this effect by using chapter quizzes and then repeating important material on exams.  Even giving a unit exam on the last day of class and then a cumulative final a week later will help with retention of recently presented information.   Research suggests that spacing the testing out across the semester leads to better results, and that for maximum effect recall should be somewhat delayed.  As we have probably all experienced, testing or recall efforts that occur immediately after teaching or reading material tends to produce short term positive effects that disappear quickly.   So you might want to start by giving a reading quiz perhaps a week after the reading was discussed in class.  Questions on the same material could appear on a mid-term or be incorporated into a later assignment and then tested again on a comprehensive final.  For maximum effect, the student should be using recall methods like short answer questions or essays and not recognition methods such as multiple-choice, true-false or matching.
  • Encourage students to question themselves or each other instead of re-reading notes or texts.  Give a series of open-ended questions as a study guide or have students bring open-ended questions to class, exchange them, and practice answering them.  Online quizzes can work as recall practice too, although they tend to be more recognition focused.  Assign online quizzes strategically to keep the students repeatedly working with the material over the course of the semester.
  • If you do not use tests, you can still require students to recall and reuse previously learned material for projects, case studies or other activities.  Varying the method of retrieval e.g. using an in-class exercise or presentation instead of a test, enhances retention, since it gives students multiple cues for recalling information.  Material that becomes embedded in a narrative or other rich experience is more likely to be retained (but more on that later).
  • When asking students to retrieve previously learned material, try to provide as few hints (“retrieval cues” in cognitive jargon) as possible.  Thus, a free response essay or an application that requires the student to recall material is better at promoting retention than a multiple choice question that requires only recognition of the correct answer.
  • Give students immediate feedback on their answers to avoid them practicing and learning incorrect material.  When you are working on this kind of long term learning, you want to make sure it is correct!

While these ideas and suggestions can help us design courses that maximize students’ ability to remember and transfer information more effectively, we still have to decide which material needs to be emphasized in this way.  We don’t have the time to require frequent testing and recall of all or even most of the material in a typical course, so it is vital for us to distinguish between material that must be automatically available versus material that can and should be looked up as needed.  The current wealth of easily accessible online information has made this a difficult question, but looking at basic conceptual frameworks, core concepts and strategies is a good place for most of us to start. Using a cognitively informed approach asks us to be more intentional about identifying and choosing the most important material in the course and strategically requiring students to recall it multiple times in multiple ways.  It may require rethinking some aspects of your course, but the reward is longer retention and better transfer of your course’s most important concepts.

Most of this post has been summarized and paraphrased from http://psyc.memphis.edu/learning/principles/lp3.shtml

Next up:  Varying Learning Methods

Going multimodal

Multimodal teaching was a hot topic on one of my listservs recently.  The question there was:  is there evidence that multimodal presentation is really helpful for student learning?  The answer:  yes.

What do I mean by multimodal teaching?  In a multimodal teaching segment, students encounter the same material in different ways.  Research from cognitive psychology tells us that people learn best when they are exposed to information multiple times using varied sensory modes.  Why?  Since information from different senses is coded and stored differently, multimodal teaching gives students’ brains several “hooks” on which to hang their learning.   While helpful for every student, multimodal teaching is particularly helpful for students from different cultures or those  with various learning weaknesses that can limit their ability to learn in traditional classrooms .

Nilson (2010) describes the primary modes used in the classroom as follows:

  • Verbal — reading and writing (formal and informal), e.g. responses, directions, instructions or outlines
  • Verbal/Oral –Auditory —  Lecture or podcast (these work best if they are in the form of stories or narratives), discussions
  • Action/Experience – role plays, simulations, case studies, service learning, physical models and demonstrations , animations, virtual worlds
  • Visual – concept maps, flowcharts, graphic metaphors, images, matrices

Many of you already combine modalities, but with a little thought, you can extend what you do into even more modes.  For example, you may already have students read for background information (verbal), watch a video (visual and auditory) and discuss it (auditory).   Follow up that experience with some kind of writing (verbal) or a concept map (visual) to add in another dimension.  To include an action experience, students could role play or solve a case study based on the video or the readings.

To enhance a lecture, consider podcasting it first (auditory, perhaps some visuals) and then using class time to engage in problem solving (action), responding to written questions, writing step by step directions for problem solving (verbal) or creating a flowchart (visual).

In a studio setting, students might first read about a particular method (verbal) create a design (visual, action) then write a description of their process (verbal) or a reflection on what went well and what did not.  Or, they could narrate a podcast to go with their works (auditory).

It is usually not hard to think of ways to add another modality to your current favorites, but is it worth the time and effort?  The research suggests that it is, in that students learn and retain material longer and better.  The benefits of multi-modal teaching also include deeper conceptual understanding and easier recall of information. The course design issue is figuring out how to move some student experiences out of the classroom so you can use class time to focus on other experiences during class.

What’s a common but not particularly helpful use of multi-modal teaching?  Assigning a reading and then lecturing “over” the reading.  While this is sort of multi-modal, it’s mostly a really good way to make sure students don’t do the reading.  Instead, give the students the lecture before class (as a podcast) and work on understanding the reading in class if it is difficult.  (Presumably the lecture content will help them with this.)  Or, give the class some easier and more engaging reading for homework and make sure that your classroom combines lecture and action that requires them to use what they read.

What are some fun ways that you are going multimodal in your classes?

For more on student learning styles and multimodal teaching, check out this powerpoint by Linda Nilson from the 2010 Lilly Conference (and think about attending a Lilly Conference on Teaching!).


Teaching Tip: Research on learning, or why we have two hands

Making sense of learning research is not for the faint of heart.  This week as I was reviewing the article “25 learning principles to guide pedagogy and the design of learning environments” to find some helpful hints, I realized that some of the principles on that list seemed to be contradicting others on the same list.  Hmmm….so here’s how I tried to make sense of them. Warning: includes occasional cognitive psychology/education jargon.

On the one hand……

Include cognitive challenges and promote cognitive flexibility

Cognitive disequilibrium happens when students encounter obstacles like information that contradicts their current beliefs or competing explanations that lead them to uncertainty and impasse.  This unbalanced state can lead to deeper learning by requiring students to study, critically reason, explore and attempt to resolve conflicts or problems. Presenting students with multiple divergent viewpoints also promotes cognitive flexibility, which is vital to being able to think creatively and deeply about a topic.

But on the other hand:   Know your audience and what they need

Levels of cognitive challenge too far beyond the students’ current stage can induce frustration, confusion, and anger; learning does not occur under those conditions.  We know instinctively that you can’t teach freshmen the same way you teach senior majors or graduate students, but we don’t always pay enough attention to those differences.  You can use a pre-test or knowledge survey to find out where your students are as the semester begins, and then use the Goldilocks principle (more formally known as Zygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) to find the “just right” balance between challenge and support (aka scaffolding) for your class.  Of course, the ZPD really applies to individual students, and the inevitable differences that exist among students in any classroom mean that even if your class is optimal for most students, some of them will need extra support and some will need more challenge. To me this is one of the greatest challenges we face as instructors, so more on that later.

On the one hand……

Present information using multiple modalities

Information is more readily encoded and remembered when it is presented through multiple modes. Combining lecture/discussion with media clips, audio (e.g. podcasts) and/or pictures is more effective than using only one method.  Providing the same information using multiple modes is one of the foundations of universal course design, which aims to create equitable classrooms for all students.   Universal Course Design

But on the other hand:  Avoid distraction

Plan the order and amount of new information that is to be presented in digestible chunks so you don’t overwhelm students with too much too fast.  When using multiple channels, keep them “congruent” e.g. present similar information over different channels.  Otherwise, students will attempt to process both channels simultaneously, which leads to cognitive overload for many of them.  Avoid distracting elements such as animations, pictures or other add-ons that do not directly connect to the material to be learned; your intent may be to attract attention but the result may be lack of learning.

On the one hand….

Use active methods and deep questioning

There is a robust body of research that indicates that students should be doing things with the information and processes we want them to learn.  What kind of things?

  • Outlining, organizing, synthesizing, re-stating in their own words and/or applying information to new examples rather than just re-reading material or listening.  For example, have students create their own study guides or chapter outlines and give them feedback.
  • Combining information gleaned from texts, lectures, discussions or other resources into a single product.  Try using a different approach or order of topics in class than your text uses, then require students to integrate the two.  Have them combine what they saw in a video with what the text says about the topic in writing. These activities require students to take more time and effort, and lead to better learning.
  • Ask good questions to promote increased comprehension and deeper learning.  Good questions also get students into the mindset of thinking deeply about material as the course progresses, in anticipation of the questions they will be asked.  What are good questions?  The traditional “who, what, where, when” questions do not lead to as much learning as “why, how, what if or what if not” questions.  Students will require more time and thought to answer these questions, especially at the beginning.  They benefit from the opportunity to think or write about questions first, discuss them in small groups and then engage in a whole class exploration.

But on the other hand: Sometimes direct instruction is necessary

Especially for novice learners (including yourself when you are learning something new), unsupported inquiry or totally independent active learning is not the most effective way to go.  Novices need supports which may take the form of worked examples, explanations, and detailed formats and directions (there’s that scaffolding again).  New learners often need direct instruction in metacognitive skills such as how to study, how to tackle difficult reading materials and how to regulate their learning.  When you are assessing student knowledge, it may also be helpful to assess their understanding of how to learn as well.  As students progress through their programs, direct instruction should be less prominent and less support should be necessary, but once again, individual differences play a big role here. .

I’ve really just touched the surface of these principles that are at the core of good learning and teaching.  It would be so helpful to hear about some of the things you are doing in your classrooms that illustrate how you are trying to maintain the balance between challenge, activity and complexity on the one hand, and direct instruction, simplicity and support on the other.  Where is it working for you, and where would you like some new ideas to try?

Principles drawn from:  25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the Design of Learning Environments

Teaching Tip: Testing..testing..testing

I’ve never been a huge fan of tests, preferring more “real world” tasks like projects and papers.  My attitude probably stems from too many memories of cramming for tests and then forgetting most of what I “learned”.  But research in learning and cognition suggests that tests can be very effective learning tools (not just assessment methods) if they are used well, so I’m working on readjusting my beliefs.

Regardless of how we feel about them, tests are a fact of academic life for most of us.  We all know that students pay more attention to material they think will be on the test (and as we all know, they quickly learn not to attend to material they think will not be on the test).  A truism in education at all levels is that assessment drives instruction; what you test is what students are most likely to learn.  So, our tests need to be as good as we can possibly make them.    I was pleased to come across a great summary of research-based learning principles that had many suggestions about what makes good tests.  (http://psyc.memphis.edu/learning)

Test Often
I still remember a comment Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking made in a seminar I attended many years ago.  It went something like this:  We all know that students don’t study until the night before the test.  Instead of bemoaning this, use your knowledge.  Give them a test every class.  That way they’ll study at least twice a week.   While I’ve never gone quite this far, frequent testing has several benefits:

  • It keeps students more engaged with the content of the class and it slows down forgetting.
  • Frequent testing is particularly effective if you give students immediate feedback about their results and if you use the class results to guide your course planning.
  • How frequent is frequent?  Anywhere from every class to every two – three weeks.
  • I have not seen evidence that “pop” quizzes are any better or worse than announced ones.  I have not been a fan of pop quizzes since I was a student and don’t give them, but there is no pedagogical reason not to if that is your preference.

Start early

  • Spacing tests over the entire semester (rather than concentrating on mid-term and beyond) produces better retention than fewer tests, or tests that are closer together in time. Testing right after you present material usually results in higher scores, but long-term memory has not yet been engaged so retention is poorer.  We often think our students understand better than they do based on those first tests, only to be disappointed on the final or in the next course when the learning has disappeared.

Use constructed response items as much as possible

  • If you use multiple choice items, combine them with constructed response items (short answer or essay) as often as possible.  When students have to generate their own responses instead of recognizing the correct response from a list, decide true/false, etc. their learning is enhanced.  You can also include free response tasks as part of your teaching on a regular basis.

Avoid negative suggestion effects

  • A downside of testing is that students may remember the wrong answer they wrote or selected instead of the correct response.  To combat this, students need feedback as soon as possible on their performance so they can correct their memories.  You could do this by asking students to rewrite answers correctly or by reviewing items in class or individually.  One effective review strategy I have used with multiple choice tests is to have students immediately re-take the test in small groups with the group coming to consensus about the correct answer.  Then the class reviews any items that the groups got wrong (usually this comes down to just a few items).   This makes the test into a powerful learning experience, although it does take up more class time.  If you are requiring students to do more content acquisition on their own, outside of class, you will have time for this type of approach.  

Give a cumulative final (or at least threaten to)

  • When students expect a final exam that covers material from the entire course, as well as perhaps some more recent material, they will work to keep that material in their memory since they expect they will need it later.

Spreading testing out over the semester may have some benefits for you as well.  You can spread your grading out a bit more, you may be able to give more constructed response items if they are spaced through the semester, and you may see some happy improvements in student performance overall.

Oh and by the way, you don’t have to call them “tests”, and you don’t have to grade every one.  You can use clickers to pose questions and process them during class, or you can schedule “in-class directed writing” assignments every couple of weeks.   The important points are 1) frequent assessment of student progress; 2) make the students construct their responses as much as you can; 3) correct errors very promptly and 4) don’t let them learn something just for one exam and then be able to forget it.

Share your test giving strategies or concerns with us!