Testing is a Key to Better Learning

On November 27, the School of Psychology hosted Henry Roediger, professor of psychology at Washington University and author of the 2014 book Making it Stick: The science of successful learning. Roediger’s talk reviewed decades of his lab’s research on the impact of testing on learning.Image result for roediger

Standard practice in memory research is to conduct multiple trials where participants study something and then take a test to assess their memory. Repeating the study/test trial over time leads to better performance on subsequent tests. These results have been interpreted as evidence that repeated studying leads to better test performance. Roediger’s lab breaks apart the study/test pairing to investigate what impact the test, rather than studying, has on learning.

Consider this sample schedule of trials where S represents study time and T represents testing:

Condition 1 ST ST ST ST
Condition 2 ST SS ST SS
Condition 3 SS SS SS SS

As you see, Condition 1 experiences 4 rounds of study and 4 rounds of testing. Condition 2 experiences more studying and less testing and Condition 3 experiences all study time and no testing. The results are a bit surprising: when tested one week later, Condition 3, with the greatest amount of studying, performed the worst, while Condition 1, with the most testing and the least study time, performed the best (Zaromb & Roediger, 2010).

Two phenomena of memory are at work here. First, retrieval practice in Condition 1 helps test takers perform well because they practice the same memory task during learning that they do on the final assessment. Second, the illusion of mastery hinders learners in Condition 3: rereading and highlighting the material makes them overconfident in their knowledge.

This overconfidence emerges in another study (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) in which students were asked to predict how well they would do on a final exam after participating in study/test conditions similar to the ones describe above. The students with the most study time performed worse than they predicted, while those with the most testing scored better than they thought they would. Five minutes later, students with more study time outperformed those with more testing, but when tested again one week later, students with more testing recalled significantly more than those who had experienced no testing. With repeated studying and no testing, information is retained in the short term, but is not sustained over time.

What does this mean for student learning? Instructors and TAs can help students learn better by learning how to study better. Students often study by rereading the text and highlighting their notes, which turns out to be inefficient and unproductive. Instead, students should increase self-quizzing, asking themselves recognition questions in the form of flash cards and multiple choice questions, and open-ended recall questions. Instructors can increase student learning by building frequent quizzing and feedback into the course. As Roediger said, “we should make them think every time they enter class.”

Roediger closed his talk with this “top 10 list” of the benefits of frequent quizzing from Roediger, Putnam & Smith (2011):

1: The Testing Effect: Retrieval aids later retention

2: Testing identifies gaps in knowledge

3: Testing causes students to learn more from the next study episode

4: Testing produces better organization of knowledge

5: Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts

6: Testing can facilitate retrieval of material that was not tested

7: Testing improves metacognitive monitoring

8: Testing prevents interference from prior material when learning new material

9: Testing provides feedback to instructors

10: Frequent testing encourages students to study

To read more about the science of successful learning, see Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.


Roediger, H.L. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.

Roediger, H.L., Putnam, A.L & Smith, M.A. (2011). Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55, 1-36.

Zaromb, F.M. & Roediger, H.L. (2010). The testing effect in free recall is associated with enhanced organizational processes. Memory & Cognition, 38(8), 995-1008.

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