How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves
How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves

How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves

Answering questions is not just fun, it is also a good way to learn.

Vaughn and Kornell (2019)

In the previous post I shared the performance gains of self-testing (6%) Vaughn et al (2021). This then, is the Hollywood prequel – How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves.

It focuses on the use of hints to make self-testing more desirable, given the fact that many students (and some teachers) take a dim view of testing. There is quite literally a hatful of studies presenting that finding (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012; Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009; Morehead, Rhodes, & DeLozier, 2016; Wissman, Rawson, & Pyc, 2012), avoid testing even.

Vaughn and Kornell (2019) share an interesting position of this.

When people avoid tests, and choose restudy instead, we hypothesize that they are not trying to avoid taking a test per se, but that they are trying to avoid failure; they do not want to get the answer wrong

Vaughn and Kornell (2019)

How to make testing more… desirable

If one is to increase learning, how do we make testing more desirable. How do we create a situation where our learners prefer restudy but chose testing anyway. The route explored by Vaughn and Kornell (2019) was to allow participants to decide the difficulty of the test trials.

In Experiment 1, participants were able to choose from a pure test trial (idea: __), a two-letter hint (idea: s_____r), a four-letter hint (idea: se__er), or a pure study trial (idea: seeker). They also had the option to take tests with hints. They tested themselves on the majority of the trials, but this preference was reversed in Experiment 2 when we removed the hint options. If you were wondering, which hint model was most popular – it was the 4 letter model with 54%. No-one selected the zero-letter trial for any of the questions. All retrieval trial types models yielded significantly better recall performance compared to the restudy trial type.

Experiment 3 and 4 were designed to examine learning. If hints encourage people to test themselves, that is a good first step. But what if the tests with hints are no more effective than presentations? Experiment 3 demonstrated that hints do not decrease learning insofar as the target is not guessable. When the target is guessable, the hints make the test trials less effective (Experiment 4) e.g., (king-q__en) could potentially impair learning (compared to test trials) and may need to be avoided.

When offered two options, either restudy or taking a test, participants chose the less effective restudying on the majority of trials. When allowed to request hints during test trials, however, they preferred testing over restudy by a sizeable margin.

Unfortunately, desirable difficulties are not always desirable to the learner because learners typically, but incorrectly, assume that poor short-term performance is equivalent to poor learning (for reviews, see Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013; Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015).

Vaughn and Kornell (2019)

Learners prefer self-testing when the tests are made more palatable with hints. Furthermore, these hints do not decrease learning if the target is unguessable. Without hints, students avoid self-testing; with hints, students are more likely to self-test, find self-without any downside for learning, thus making their self-regulated study more enjoyable and effective.

When to use hints

  • Hints are probably especially important when the participants would otherwise fail to answer most of the test questions without hints.
  • Hints might be most useful when the learners are just starting to encode / learn new material
  • The material is difficult (not necessarily complex).
  • When a learner can get the answers right without hints, they will probably choose test trials with or without hints, so the hints might not hurt, but they might not help either.
  • Hints should not reveal the answer.
  • “Hints to make the spinach taste good.”

Need vs Want to test

Agency is powerful in the classroom. Students wanting to test rather than being told to test has two advantages. First, metacognitive beliefs do not always lead to better metacognitive control action. In other words, changing a student’s beliefs about the benefits of testing does not always change how they chose to study.

Students often think testing is good for them. Vaughn and Kornell (2019) however hypothesise that the reason they chose restudy, instead of testing, is not because they think testing is bad. Rather, it is because they are trying to avoid failure.

Vaughn, K.E., Kornell, N. How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves. Cogn. Research 4, 35 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-019-0187-y

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  1. Pingback: Top tips for generating retrieval questions for revision – Edventures

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