Using Testing to Enhance Learning

Would you like your students to remember what you teach them longer? Research provides insights as to how me might achieve this goal. Obviously, it is very important that you teach in a way that students can understand the material. For long-term retention, it is also important how and when you revisit that information. 


First, let’s discuss the “how.” Rather than simply having students study information you have just taught, it is far better to test them. Quizzing students frequently results in better understanding of complex material than a small number of longer, more comprehensive tests. With repeated testing or quizzing, students are more likely to keep up with the readings and lectures and ultimately master the material. This instructional principle is commonly referred to as retrieval practice or frequent testing. If you currently include tests or quizzes in your course, you might consider adding more so that students retrieve information prior to each class. Even if you don’t include tests or quizzes, there are other ways to incorporate the concept of frequent testing into your teaching. Consider the schedule below as an example of frequent testing.

Students read Chapter 1 Quiz over Chapter 1 Quiz over Chapter 2 Quiz over Chapter 3



In this way students are required to recall content from each chapter each time they come to class.

While this video is directed towards medical students, frequent testing is applicable to all students in any field.

Here are a few useful resources:   This is an extremely helpful website owned by Pooja Agarwal and even contains a free Retrieval Practice Guide you can download. It contains references of relevant research and “how-to” information to help you implement frequent testing into your course.  This is an “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” blog. Featured here is Henry Roediger speaking about retrieval practice, even spaced retrieval practice (see below). Roediger gives a very layperson-friendly explanation of how frequent testing works. This is an excellent site from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. They use yet another term to describe the same thing – test-enhanced learning. This site provides the why and how in a very condensed and easy-to-read language. From Stanford University’s Teaching Commons, this is a very brief explanation of how retrieval practice works.


Now, let’s discuss the “when.” Just as it is beneficial to quiz students frequently, the timing of the tests is also important.  Consider how a “pop quiz” sometimes works.  The instructor presents a new concept in class and, a few minutes later, students are tested on the concept. Although students may perform well on the quiz, all the evidence suggests that they probably won’t retain the information very long.  A preferable strategy is to provide more time between the new material and a quiz.  Today’s new information should be tested in the next or later class. This may sound silly, but students actually need some time to sort of “forget” the information. Also, be sure to wait another day or longer before testing them over the same material again. This instructional principle is commonly referred to as the spacing effect. For optimal long-term learning, the amount of time or space between testing sessions should increase over time. Consider the schedule below as an example of the spacing effect.

Students read Chapter 1 Quiz over Chapter 1 Quiz over Chapter 2 but includes a few items from Chapter 1 Quiz over Chapter 5 but includes an item from Chapter 1


In this way students are required to revisit content from Chapter 1 at increasingly longer intervals.

While this video was developed for students in the medical field, spaced repetition is a strategy that works for any student in any field.

Below are some links to resources that will assist you: This is a very brief blog that explains how spaced testing works with second language learning. This is a nice blog explaining how spaced testing works and why with medical education.,PIBBS).pdf This is a brief paper discussing how the two powerful strategies of frequent testing and spaced testing can be combined.

To see the scientific evidence for why frequent and spaced testing are beneficial, check out the reference articles to the right.



Frequent Testing:

Carpenter, S. K., Pashler, H., & Cepeda, N. J. (2009). Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’ retention of US history facts. Applied Cognitive Psychology23(6), 760-77

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399-414. doi.10.1037/a0021782.

McDaniel, M. A., Thomas, R. C., Agarwal, P. K, McDermott, K. B, & Roediger, H. L. (2013). Quizzing in middle school science: Successful transfer performance on classroom exams. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 360-372.

McDermott, K. B., Agarwal, P K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 3-21.

Roediger, H. L., III, Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382-395.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 20–27.

Spacing Effect:

Kapler, I.V., Weston, M., & Wiseheart, M (2014). Spacing in a simulated undergraduate classroom: Long-term benefits for factual and hgher evel learning. Learning and Instruction

Shroyer, J., Mozer,M. & H. Pashier (2014). Students remember more with personalized review even after classed end.  APS News

Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61, 228–247.

Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380.

Dempster, F. N., & Farris, R. (1990). The spacing effect: Research and practice. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 23, 97–101.

Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 283–302.