The Effect of Exams on Learning

March 16, 2011 Katharina Lochner

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If You Really Want Acquire Knowledge, You Better Take a Test

All of us have had times in which it was necessary to acquire a lot of knowledge, be it at school, at university, or during further training. We all have our strategies to prepare for an exam: we elaborate the contents, we learn some things by heart, we try to formulate important points in our own words, and so on. Then, we take the exam, and we forget most of what we learned again. But what if the test itself helps maintain the knowledge?

This is exactly what Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt from Purdue University, West Lafayette in the United States found. They gave students a passage to read and compared three study methods: one group of students repeated the contents, one drew diagrams depicting the contents, and one took a test. One week later, all students were assessed in with respect to how much they could remember. Contrary to what the students themselves had expected, those who had taken the test after reading the passage remembered more of the contents than students in the other two groups.

You can find the original article here. There is also an informative article in the New York Times.

Researchers are currently speculating why retrieving learned content from memory results in greater gain in knowledge than, for example, elaborating the contexts, but they have not found an answer yet. In any case, the findings have important implications for practice, not only at school or at university, but also in organisational settings: Whenever people receive further training in which predominantly explicit knowledge is to be acquired, it might make sense to integrate retrieval practice into the training concept. That is, make participants retrieve from their memories what they have learned. From such a concept, not only the training participants will profit, but also the trainer him- or herself: Testing what participants learned during their training is one means of evaluating the quality of the training.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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