Test-enhanced learning: Successive Relearning (part IV)
Test-enhanced learning: Successive Relearning (part IV)

Test-enhanced learning: Successive Relearning (part IV)

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not information. They are distinctly different and should be taught distinctly differently. Even knowing this, we won’t travel far at all without pupils’ attention and the borders of the hinterland will remain at a distance without great teaching (teachers with great subject knowledge, expert instruction and learning design, culture and climate management, professional behaviours and commitment, and great schooling (pastoral support, opportunities and community). I recognise that test-enhanced learning is but a small cog in the education machine. For me personally, testing is the lug-nut in my teaching practice.

Why test-enhanced learning and why successive relearning?

Without an understanding of human cognitive architecture, instruction is blind.

The subtitle of Dr John Sweller’s presentation at researchED Melbourne in 2017

Cognitive architecture demands that learning is successive and that knowledge is maintained.

Practice tests and spaced study are both highly potent for enhancing learning and memory. Combining these two methods under the conditions in which they are most effective (practice tests that invoke successful retrieval from long-term memory and spacing study across days) yields a promising learning technique referred to as successive relearning.

Rawson et al. (2013)

Let’s work backwards from success. Let’s reverse engineer the solution. Having made knowledge ‘relatively permanent’ learning moves to a maintenance phase, where no/minimal reacquisition is required, however this knowledge must be remembered or used periodically (See Bahrick, 1979) for it to be accessible when required. Again, neither “remembered or used periodically,” feel sedentary. Whereby knowledge “stored,” I would suggest “maintained,” is retrieved, re-organised and re-synthesised with any newly acquired knowledge since first encoded. Maintained knowledge returned to long-term memory is modified and reconstructed and returns as something quite different to what was retrieved.

After finding out the meaning of ‘cur’ I encouraged our son to share his new word discovery at the dinner table, with his grandparents later that weekend and we insult each Black Powder villain (and then laugh about it). It is not what it was. And as we read the book, each time he accesses it, reuses it, it is modified by his deepening understanding of the time period, the politics of the day and his understanding of the characters and plot.

Knowledge, knowing, is a transitory state. It is not a destination, not an end-point and any effort to learn new information is in fact a retrieval-encoding endeavour. Furthermore, production, rehearsal organising, categorisation, synthesising, practice variation, application, elaboration, discrimination or interleaving,used to promote meaning-making, strengthens both storage and retrieval strengths the bonds between information and prior knowledge. With conscious thought, manipulation, application, information and prior knowledge, now modified, maintained and reconstructed, selected to meets the demands of the task or situation, is knowledge.

Not knowing is also a transitory state (at least if resolved). The temporary, often fragmentary, inability to retrieve previously accessible knowledge (lethologica) or metacognitively, knowing that you do not know something, itself learning, taking us full circle back to encoding-retrieving and learning. In fact leveraging the state of “not knowing” or potentiated learning to ‘spark curiosity’ or ‘answer-seeking behaviours’ is very powerful.

My point – The enacted phrase of modifying, maintaining and reconstructing knowledge trumps ‘stored semi-permanently.’ Information, then is distinctly different, and yet the realisation is, in information is processed through retrieval-encoding underlining the importance of prior knowledge.

Once pupils encode/learn, add meaning, understand and have access to ‘misanthropic’ or ‘parsimonious,’ or ‘covetous’ for example as fast access knowledge, rarely do they perceive or describe the character of Scrooge as being ‘mean‘. Their maturing schema, ‘retrieved and reconstructed’ ‘reorganised and synthesised’ many times of a series of carefully sequenced lessons, as a result of many and various exposures to such powerful language leads me to determine that learning is “a process, not a product.” That we need a little knowledge before we can be curious – why not prime that curiosity with a test?

That brings us right back to the start. Decide what it is we want our pupils to know and remember.

A challenge to the treatment of ‘learning’ as a unitary phenomena

These hypothetical encoding/learning and remembering/relearning/maintaining phases continue to be stress-tested at the chalkface. With testing clearly enhancing learning, and a versatile tool for teachers, maybe we should make better use of tests? Not tests of learning but tests as learning. So why is testing still a dirty word?

First, in truth, rarely do we teach discreetly new information – even the words we encounter, like ‘papist’ and ‘cur’ are more often than not decodable – but not always. Second, defining essential information (to become essential knowledge) and sequencing instruction and cross curricular instruction, requires real learning design expertise and hard thinking. Regrettably these pre-teaching investments have not been valued or given sufficient time. More recently, curriculum design and implementation has had a resurgence. A Next Big Thing for sure.

Moving from product to process?

Over the past three years, I have become fastidious about what to teach, the weight and sequence of information (including seeking efficiencies arising from cross-curricular teaching or “happy accidents” and discounting less non-essential knowledge) and how it will be assessed through cumulative assessment, itself an obvious partner for successive relearning.

In class, I explicitly direct pupil attention / regulating mind wandering and of course, use test-enhanced learning daily. I give less prominence to the learning phase and greater emphasis and time to the maintenance phase (retrieval, remembering, successive relearning) and elaboration. Simply, I teach less, so that I can reteach it and I test to enhance learning at every step. Before I teach, as I teach, the check what I teach is retained, and for pupils to elaborate on what they know.

Four distinct phases for learning

I am currently rested on four opportunities for learning (acquisition and maintenance): 

  1. Potentiated learning* – pre-testing what is about to the taught
  2. Encoding/learning** – testing as learning, as a teaching approach
  3. Maintenance (remembering/successive relearning/maintaining and also discounting irrelevant knowledge)
  4. Elaboration (retrieve-encoding) – asking how and why questions

*sparking curiosity-seeking behaviours and priming the identification of answers or solutions

**during encoding, after maintenance (remembering or successive relearning), cues (eg questions or activities) that promote meaning-making, defines, organises and synthesises knowledge (Craik, 2002). 

Teaching and learning are inseparable

Believe it or not, this series has taken nearly two month to write, consult upon, and re-write. It is an attempt to surface my own thinking on how the science of learning, of cognitive architecture, encourages a move from ‘product to process’ teaching and using testing as learning. That there are two distinctly different phases of learning, that require two distinctly different approaches to teaching. Thanks for sticking with me.

Attentive encoding and meaning-making makes information available for ‘retrieval and reconstruction’ as knowledge.

Even knowing this, my dog still can’t whistle!

To Alex (Year 7 pupil) – who correctly and accurately defined five powerful pieces of vocabulary (that he did not possess five weeks ago) to his doubting fellow Year 7 peers. You continue to remind me why this work is important and why learning and maintaining new information (in this case vocabulary) builds learner confidence. A confidence written all over his face at the close of that exchange.

Preposterous, spigot, holster, buzzard and excavate: Do these five words target the title of the Year 7 book?*


  • Memory serves future predictions of our world, of learning.
  • Prior knowledge informs perception, and perception directs attention
  • Attention is the bottleneck of learning
  • Encoding/learning starts with ‘retrieval-encoding’ based on what is attended to (even without prior knowledge)
  • Information and knowledge are distinctly different
  • Memory, and therefore learning, is ‘maintained’ rather than stored semi-permanently, ‘reconstructive rather than objective’
  • Performance is not learning
  • Learning is “a process, not a product.” A process of encoding/learning information, remembering (successive) relearning or maintaining knowledge
  • Two ‘distinctly different’ phases of learning, require two ‘distinctly different’ approaches to teaching (there are arguments for sub-phases of knowledge)
  • Potentiated learning sparks curiosity (it is hard to be curious about what you know nothing of) and primed the identification of answers or solutions.
  • Elaboration during learning, and particularly when retrieving/remembering or successive relearning aids retention and meaning-making.
  • Low failure rates when encoding/learning promotes the success-motivation-success cycle – reduces time spent on feedback

Summary conclusion

Define the curriculum. Define what knowledge is essential (and what knowledge is to be discounted). Pre-test as part of ascertaining what pupils know. Teach slow and plan to reteach less so. Test frequently. Make knowledge meaningful. Focused on the pupils’ abilities to retrieve and transfer knowledge. Share with the pupils the memorial benefits of doing so.

Answer: Louis Sachar – Holes*

On my terms (Part I)Information is not knowledge (Part II)Knowledge is not information (Part III)Successive Relearning (Part IV)
Craik, F. I. M. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present… and future? Memory, 10(5-6), 305–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210244000135
Rawson, K. A., Vaughn, K. E., Walsh, M. and Dunlosky, J. (2018) Investigating and explaining the effects of successive relearning on long-term retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1): 57–71. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000146
Soderstrom, N. C. and Bjork, R. A. (2015) Learning versus performance: an integrative review.Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2): 176–199. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615569000
Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Stackhouse, J., & Rush, R. (2017). Contribution of spoken language and socio-economic background to adolescents’ educational achievement at age 16 years. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 52, 2, 184-196
Sweller, J. (2017) Cognitive load theory: without an understanding of human cognitive architecture, instruction is blind, researchED Melbourne (3 July). Available at: https://


  1. Pingback: Test-enhanced learning: On my terms (Part I) – Edventures

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  3. Pingback: Test-enhanced learning: knowledge is not information (part III) – Edventures

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