Self-testing – students did not execute the plan!
Self-testing – students did not execute the plan!

Self-testing – students did not execute the plan!

Listen to enough Dr John Dunlosky interviews and you will be convinced of two points:

  • The importance of effective time management
  • The importance of teaching students how they should go about learning (practice testing, spaced practice, and successive relearning)

Of course, time in class is proscriptive and limited. What about beyond it? What about self-regulated learning?

So here is an interesting paper looking at students’ self-regulated choices of easy and difficult items: “Do Students Effectively Regulate Their Use of Self-Testing as a Function of Item Difficulty?” It follows a traditional retrieval research methodology: initial learning of paired associates, then self-regulated learning with three self-regulated item options, restudy an item, take a practice test, or remove an item from further practice with granular judgment of learning (JOL).

This is important as how students regulate their learning for items of varying difficulty will have important implications for their subsequent retention of that information; in particular, difficult material will require more practice during learning to reach a similar level of retention, even if the same effective strategy is used.

What do we learn?

In news that won’t surprise any teacher, students knew to practice difficult items more than easy items, but they did not execute this plan during the learning task.*

Students did not differentially regulate their use of self-testing for easy versus difficult items in terms of criterion reached. Restudying difficult items is not representative of participants’ overall learning choices. Why might this be? The researchers suggest that this may be because students “prepotent bias is to use testing as a monitoring tool,” instead of a learning tool.

Teachers, our task is to emphasise the benefits of testing as learning or test-enhanced learning. I can see it from a students point of view – why check knowledge if you expect you will fail? The answer – it helps you acquire that knowledge in the first place. Plus, if you can convince your students to move past initial learning only, past one-and-done, to successive relearning the items in multiple sessions (3) then the learning gains are substantially improving long-term retention up to several months later (Rawson & Dunlosky, 2011, 2013).

Second – there are hints from the researchers as to whether or not students reliably know what items are “easy” and what items are “difficult.” What is more, whilst I accept that the research items were previously unknown. normatively easy, half were normatively difficult, that is rarely the case with real classrooms. The issue is not merely defining normative easy or difficult but that each item’s difficulty, is unique to each student!

Participants did differentially regulate in terms of number of test trials. That is, more test trials for difficult items (although that has not always been the case reported by the research. Some studies show learners like to test what it is they know). Again, the reason for this is signposted towards the prepotent bias of students to use testing as a monitoring tool and not a learning tool. Or – test what you know – success! and smiles! Test what you do not know – fail! and frowns!

Learning performance

What about the results. Performance was significantly lower for difficult items than for easy items, indicating that students do not effectively regulate their learning for difficult items, ineffective for single session learning, used in the current set of experiments in this paper. You could reframe this conclusion. It signposts the dangers of allowing your students to drop cards – regardless of difficulty and again signals the importance and potency successive relearning.

A reminder, if you are looking to push forward, cards should not be dropped rather, the spacing extended. Why do I make this claim. Students judgements are not reliable (often overconfident) and relearning is so super efficient, use it. The time cost is minimal.

One interesting aside, the researchers discussed the size of the “block” of items being learnt as a moderator. In this case, 40 items. The researchers noted that even 40 items made it difficult for participants to track their progress. Of course, testing platforms like easily take care of this for learning and report back to teachers.

Where now?

Several techniques have been identified that can help students of all ages and abilities learn, understand, and retain materials across a wide variety of classes. Although these techniques are not the panacea for all the learning hurdles that students must overcome, they do offer an easy and low-cost solution to boosting student achievement in many classes.

Dunlosky and Rawson (2015)

Why not explore test-enhanced learning for yourself. Practice testing as learning. Spaced practice, and successive relearning are explained in this teacher ready review.

Badali, S., Rawson, K.A. & Dunlosky, J. Do Students Effectively Regulate Their Use of Self-Testing as a Function of Item Difficulty?. Educ Psychol Rev (2022).

Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K.A. (2015). TEACHER-READY RESEARCH REVIEW Practice Tests, Spaced Practice, and Successive Relearning: Tips for Classroom Use and for Guiding Students’ Learning.

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.

Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2013). Relearning attenuates the benefits and costs of spacing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1113–1129.

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