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Practice Quizzes Help Students Retain Key Facts—Now and at Work

A new study shows that recalling facts during a test—retrieval enhanced learning—reinforces long-term learning. We asked its lead researcher for details.

New research about how practice quizzes help students learn
Imagine you taught a student who has secured a job as a pharmaceutical professional and now needs to recall information that you shared in a class. Of course, it is not possible for this person to remember every detail of a presentation you offered on a particular disease; he or she has been out of school for, perhaps, several years at this point. The question is this: Can professors improve the amount of knowledge that their students are able to retain and retrieve simply by encouraging students to modify their study habits? If so, they will be able to provide better care for their clients and patients.

Research into this topic is a specialty of Kevin Eva, PhD, director of educational research and scholarship in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In fact, Eva has spent his career focused on measuring and improving the ability of medical students to retrieve classroom knowledge when they are later working in the field. Eva, who is also a senior scientist at the University’s Centre for Health Education Scholarship, says that information is generally more memorable or “retrievable” after it is studied and tested than when it is only studied.

Recent research: Practice quizzes spark students’ memory

In research published in May 2018 in Advances in Health Sciences Education, Eva and his colleagues compared two groups of pharmacy students who had been provided with 67 slides on reflux and peptic ulcer disease. One group of students studied the slides for 30 minutes in anticipation of being tested in two weeks. The second group was asked to study the same slides for 20 minutes but to use the remaining 10 minutes to take a 10-question quiz about the material. (Note: None of the material had been previously presented in class.)

Two weeks later, both groups took a 30-question test that included the original 10 questions, plus 10 questions on other medical conditions and 10 more on basic physiology and medications. Who performed better? The students who added the quiz to their study session did 22% better on those original 10 questions. More remarkable, however, was that this same group also did 19% better on questions that were related to the slides but that had not been part of the practice quiz.

Researchers concluded that the very act of being quizzed on facts—also known as retrieval enhanced learning—helps students commit specific facts to memory and apply their knowledge to answer questions on subjects relevant to their studies. “On any topic, whether it is history or medicine, every time we remember something through the act of answering a question, we recall it better,” notes Eva.

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Why practice quizzes work: A sort of “fairy tale”

When asked to conjecture on the mechanism by which practice quizzes lock in information, Eva suggests that answering is similar to storytelling. In essence, students read the “story” in their course materials, then retell it to themselves during the practice quiz.

“The act of answering forces you to retrieve the information, which strengthens the memory,” says Eva. This is unlike traditional studying, in which students might simply read materials repeatedly in hopes that they will retain it better.

How professors can help students do better on tests—and in life

Eva says that the key for students is to understand how important it is to complete a practice quiz when studying, as opposed to simply doing the reading by itself.

For professors, says Eva, the key takeaway of his research is this: Information presented and tested needs to be well organized. When information is well integrated versus presented as a jumble of disassociated facts, professors will be able to maximize the effectiveness of testing, he explains. After all, in major-specific courses, the end goal is for the student to complete the class having deeply learned the information, so they can be more productive and effective in their future career.

“Like storytelling, which cues your memory, the act of remembering a series of related facts will help us recall it in the long term,” adds Eva.

When we consider the patient seated opposite the aforementioned hypothetical pharmacy professional—or one of your own students seated opposite a manager at their first job interview—it is easy to see how important that retrieval can be.

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