By Jeanne Crosbie
I came across an interesting article in Scientific American (August 2015) titled “Building the 21st Century Learner”, which presented the most recent research on learning from the fields of cognitive science and psychology. The findings are practical and easily implemented by any homeschooler.
The article states that, when done right, testing, a much disparaged practise these days produces: i) a better recall of facts and, ii) a deeper more complex understanding. Engaging in related learning activities before and after testing can further enhances these effects.
Testing puts into play a process called retrieval practise. It is not enough to merely read material, one must also in the course of studying be able to recall and present the studied material. Every time we call up or “retrieve” knowledge from memory, our memory changes. Mental representations become stronger, more stable, and more accessible. Memories are altered in anticipation of future need or demand. Calling up information from memory, versus rereading information, produces higher activity in certain areas of the brain improving the retention of related information through memory association. Studies have proven this to be the best, most effective method of learning. Retrieval has been proven to be superior to concept mapping, highlighting and reviewing notes, all of which have been shown to be the least effective ways to study.
Using testing for retrieval practise involves presenting learning material, followed by recall by the learner, without access to the original material. Recall may take the form of written notes for the older child or oral narration for the younger child. Repeated at spaced intervals over the course of days, weeks or months ensures retention of knowledge. Charlotte Mason, the beloved and still much followed 19th century British homeschool proponent, knew this. What she termed Narration, the assimilating of information followed by its retelling, required children to focus and then allowed their minds to classify and connect the information given. In the act of retelling or “retrieving”, one’s mind acts on the material in an original way, choosing what to leave in or out. And we cannot narrate what we do not know. In another nod to past wisdom, flashcards, much maligned by modern educators as “kill and drill”, used in small doses, at spaced intervals, are also highly effective learning tools. (Quick: what’s 9×7?!)
Retrieval practise has also been shown to foster both Transfer and Metacognition. Transfer being the ability to take knowledge in a known context and apply it to another unfamiliar context, while metacognition is our ability to think about, and manage our own learning. Feedback from tests and exams can provide valuable information to help us direct our own planning of how to best approach a given learning task, and evaluate our progress toward the achievement of that task, thus providing a much deeper learning experience.
Testing done right can be much more than an assessment tool – it can boost learning too.