Five Proven Ways to Get the Most Out of Practice Testing

Oct 23, 2023
Practice testing

Practice testing has been proven to be one of the most effective learning techniques. In fact, the cognitive psychology term "testing effect" was coined several decades ago to refer to the finding that taking practice tests on studied material promotes greater subsequent learning and retention on a final test as compared to relying on more common study strategies. Because of the effectiveness of this learning technique, many educators are incorporating more practice testing into their instruction. However, because the term "practice testing" refers to various retrieval-based learning activities that occur under various conditions, it can be hard to know how to put this technique to use most effectively.

The Research

To help educators get the most out of practice testing, three researchers, Olusola Adesope and Narayankripa Sundararajan of Washington State University and Dominic Trevisan of Simon Fraser University, conducted a meta-analysis of the current research available on the effects of practice testing to determine how the magnitude of the effect differs based on several factors. They analyzed a total of 118 articles yielding 272 independent effect sizes involving 15,472 participants and published their findings in February 2017 in a paper called Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing.

The paper brings up a lot of interesting information about practice testing, also referred to as retrieval practice. Here’s a summary of some of their most useful findings for educators looking to use this technique to improve student achievement.

Which practice test formats work best?

  • Mixed-format practice tests (which incorporate more than one question type) proved to be the most effective, even if the practice test and the final test only had one question type in common. The researchers postulate that this was likely due to the use of interleaving, which requires students to load different cognitive processes and resolve the interference between them, leading to better long-term retention and transfer.
  • Multiple-choice practice tests emerged as the most effective single format. The authors discuss that this may be because multiple-choice questions are less cognitively demanding, and research suggests that less demanding retrieval practice activities promote stronger retention because they allow students to focus all of their cognitive energy on a simple task.
  • The benefits of practice testing were greater when the practice test and the final test formats were identical rather than dissimilar (assuming the practice test and final test utilized only one question type). This is due to a phenomenon known as transfer-appropriate processing, which suggests that memories are easier to retrieve when the retrieval process is similar to how they were encoded during an initial learning activity.
  • We must also keep in mind that we want students to be presented with questions that help them experience knowledge in different ways and to be able to apply it across transfer scenarios. According to the paper, “an educator’s decision to use any given format should be based on the content of the learning material and the expected learning outcomes. For example, multiple-choice tests may be especially useful for memorization and fact retention, while short-answer testing may require more higher order thinking skills that are useful for more conceptual and abstract learning content.”

How many practice tests should students take, and how much time should pass between the practice test and the real test for maximum effect?

  • One full-length practice test was proven more effective than taking two or more full-length practice tests within a short timeframe.
  • Conducting several short practice sessions distributed over time, particularly after attention has first been turned elsewhere, require mental recall and processing which leads to deeper learning. This method utilizes distributed practice, a high-utility learning technique.
  • For maximum effect on the final test, the full-length practice test should be taken between one and six days before the final test.

Is feedback helpful?

The studies in the meta-analysis had inconsistent findings on the benefits of feedback. Some found that a practice test followed by feedback did not yield statistically significant higher testing effects than practice tests without feedback. This does not necessarily mean that receiving feedback does not aid students in retention because there are several individual studies that show that practice testing plus feedback is more beneficial than practice testing alone. Another meta-analysis that the researchers quoted concluded that immediate feedback tends to be more beneficial than delayed feedback. But, there is not enough research that examines the different types of feedback and how that feedback is given to determine the true effectiveness of feedback. Therefore, students can be encouraged to use practice testing as a learning technique whether they will receive feedback or not.

It is essential, though, that teachers should be using data from practice tests to repair misconceptions and fill knowledge gaps for students before the actual assessment. If practice continues incorrectly, students will encode misinformation that will continue to the final assessment.

Which types of students benefit most from practice testing?

  • The studies considered in this meta-analysis mostly used samples of postsecondary students, but a significant amount used samples of primary or secondary students.
  • Secondary students benefited the most from practice testing, followed by primary students, and then by postsecondary students.
  • Practice testing was highly effective as a learning technique for all three groups, increasing the likelihood that target information can be retrieved from long-term memory. Students learn to mentally organize information, which supports better retention and test performance.

How can this information be applied in the classroom?

Based on their findings, the researchers discuss several ways that educators can incorporate more retrieval practice into their classrooms:

  • Increase the number of low-stakes quizzes on material students need to retain.
  • Incorporate more formative assessment questions into ongoing instruction.
  • Increase wait time after asking the class a practice question. Instead of calling on the first student as soon as their hand is raised, wait long enough to allow all students to process the questions and come up with a response so that all gain the cognitive benefit of the retrieval practice.

One other important consideration not previously mentioned is to simulate the conditions and logistics of the final test day so that students become familiar with the testing environment and do not have to spend cognitive energy trying to find materials or figure out instructions.

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