Learning from total failure: why do impossible tests boost learning?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


In education, a test is usually used to measure learning. However, the last decade has seen an explosion of research demonstrating that tests can also dramatically improve learning - the testing effect. Most recently, a surprising discovery has been made that a test can enhance learning even when it is given before the material has been taught. Hence, when students are tested completely unfamiliar material (e.g., foreign language vocabulary), and will inevitably get all the test questions wrong, subsequent learning of that topic is enhanced. This effect has very significant implications for educational settings, and we seek to understand why the effect occurs.

The first demonstrations of the testing effect involved 3 phases. Participants first studied the material (e.g. a text). Next, one group took a test on the material, while a second group simply studied the correct answers. A final test assessed how much learning had taken place. Taking the interim test led to better final performance than restudying the material, and later research showed the effect was further enhanced if initial answers were corrected with feedback.

One possible explanation for the testing effect is that after thinking of a (wrong) answer, people are highly motivated to learn the correct answer. This particular explanation suggests that testing might be helpful even before the first encounter with the to-be-studied material, as has recently been observed. For example, if you were asked to guess the meaning of a rare English word such as "roke" before ever being told its true meaning (mist), then you would be especially good at remembering that meaning on a later test. It is this benefit of initial tests prior to learning (known as test-potentiated learning - TPL) that is the focus of the current proposal.

The Current Project
We will test a number of potential explanations for the effects of initial tests (TPL) in three strands of research. Strands 1 and 2 will use unfamiliar word pairs and face-word pairs. The former are foreign language items (Finnish nouns and their English language meanings), and the latter are unfamiliar faces, and facts associated with those faces (e.g. name/occupation). The Finnish vocabulary is used because it has clear implications for foreign language learning. Also, Finnish words specifically are not similar to English words, which guarantees that the answers to the initial test will be incorrect. Face-name learning has implications for more social and work-place situations. In the final Strand 3, more complex word-based materials (texts and general knowledge) will be used to extend the findings from Strands 1 and 2 to a range of classroom situations. Participants will know nothing about these materials in advance.

In a prototypical experiment using Finnish vocabulary, all trials will start with the presentation of a Finnish word. In the "test" condition, participants will be asked to guess the meaning of the word before being given the true meaning. A "study" condition, in which no guess is made, will serve as the control. It is expected, given previous research in our laboratory, that guessing will enhance memory for the true meaning.

Strand 1 will explore the extent to which initial tests benefit learning precisely because participants make errors, and so they are surprised by the true answer. Strand 2 will look at the extent to which people are more motivated to study, or likely to change their study strategies following a guess. That is, Strand 1 examines potential "low-level" mechanisms (e.g., error correction) of learning whereas Strand 2 looks at more "high-level" strategic processes that might result from being tested. The experiments in Strand 3 will test the generality of the findings from Strands 1 and 2 to more complex tasks such as general knowledge learning. This strand is designed to broaden the scope of more applied research that might be conducted in the future.

Planned Impact

Taking a test not only tells you how well you know a topic, it also helps you to learn. This project examines the effects of testing on learning. Specifically, it looks at the benefits of testing people on material about which they haven't yet been taught. It has been shown that if you are told a new fact (e.g., the meaning of a Finnish word or the answer to an obscure historical question) you are much more likely to remember that fact in the long term if you were asked to guess the answer first, despite your answer being wrong. The current project seeks to understand why testing improves learning in this way, with the applied aim of maximising its impact on education.

Within the lifetime of the grant, we anticipate that the impact of our findings will be seen initially within Plymouth University itself, but then also in the local community and nationally. Firstly, testing could be more fully integrated with educational practice at Plymouth, both in teaching practice, and in study-guidelines given to students to support their learning. The introduction of quick fun tests, designed and timed to maximise their efficacy in learning, is an extremely low cost and potentially very effective means to improve learning outcomes for our students. Of course, any positive impact of our findings here at Plymouth might then be taken up by other universities as well as schools across the country, and we will disseminate our findings to educators to help achieve this. Teachers and educators have a huge interest in efficient and effective learning techniques.

Another area that could benefit from the proposed research is online training programs. These programs are given to Plymouth University staff (e.g., for health and safety and workstation ergonomics) - this is an area where immediate impact could be seen through improved retention of training materials. Again, just as in the traditional classroom, any impact on the online training programs used at Plymouth University could then be reproduced elsewhere.

Memory and learning techniques are not only of interest to professionals. Members of the general public are always keen to find ways to improve their cognitive abilities. The techniques investigated in the current proposal can be used by anyone to improve their memory. Again, direct contact by the research team will be made with the local community, and findings will be publicised more widely through the press (see Pathways to Impact). A specific target audience of interest is the University of the 3rd Age. For this sector of the community, memory is of particular interest.


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