At the start of term, Karl Szpunar's students sigh or groan when he tells them there will be a quiz at the end of every class. Two or three usually drop his course.
By the final exam, though, many of them are grateful. The Harvard University researcher quizzes his students to boost their memories, an approach based on compelling scientific evidence that shows the value of testing as a learning tool. Over the past decade, study after study has found students who are quizzed on new material recall significantly more of it compared with students who aren't. This holds true for science, history, languages and many other subjects. The experiments also show that taking a test is more effective than an extra hour or so of study.
Most have involved undergraduates and were done in laboratories, but now researchers are moving into the hurly-burly of Grade 6, 7 and 8 classrooms and getting impressive results. Dr. Szpunar, a Canadian who studies memory, is probing the brain mechanisms involved. He is on the forefront of a nascent discipline of neuro-education, a field that could challenge conventional notions about how we learn. The work on testing is promising but not without controversy; the researchers say they face resistance from teachers who equate it with standardized testing, a flashpoint in schools across the continent. Some critics fret that extra tests will help students regurgitate information but not understand it.
In an effort to gain widespread acceptance of their work, researchers are delving deeper into the "testing effect," or as some scientists now prefer to call it, the "retrieval effect."
What is it about retrieving information, whether in a pop quiz, flashcards or even a classroom game of Jeopardy, that is so effective at creating long-term memories? Why is it better than rereading a chapter or reviewing notes?
There are a number of theories. Some involve the chemical or physical changes that occur in the brain when we summon a memory and reprocess it. Dr. Szpunar and his colleague have found evidence the testing helps protect against what scientists call "proactive interference," something most of us have experienced when we feel overwhelmed by too much information.
It happens when you've been studying for an hour and feel that you can no longer take anything else in. The amount of material you absorbed in the first half hour makes it hard to digest what you read in the second half, says Dr. Szpunar. In one experiment, he found that students, asked to learn five lists of words, did significantly better on the fifth list if they were tested after each one. He is doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and is hoping to use brain imaging to learn more.
Others are moving into the classroom. Henry Roediger and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis recently reported the results of a study with a Grade 8 science class. The students learned about genetics, astronomy, chemistry and anatomy, but were quizzed on only half of the material. That testing was low-stakes; it didn't count much toward their mark.
But it made a big difference. They scored 13- to 25 per cent higher on the parts of the final exam they had been previously quizzed on, a jump from a C-plus to an A-minus, says Pooja Agarwal, a member of the research team. Same students, same teacher; the difference was in the quizzing.
She and her colleagues stress that quizzes are only one of many tools that effective teachers use, including good instruction, demonstrations and active, hands-on learning. But they can make a significant difference in how well students perform.
But will quizzes improve their understanding of a topic? Or will they simply be better at reciting facts?
"If it is a matter of retrieval, my iPhone can do it faster. I am more interested in can kids use that information in a meaningful way to solve meaningful problems," says Garfield Gini-Newman, a lecturer at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, or OISE.
He understands why some teachers don't like the idea of more testing. "More kids are being tested more often. There is an old saying that weighing the pig more often doesn't make it grow heavier."
But most teachers still see tests as a way to assess students, he says, not a way to help them learn. This research has the potential to change that. He says it makes sense that if quizzing helps students master basic skills, such as multiplication, they will be able to use that to help them solve problems.
The latest findings show quizzing does, in fact, help students apply what they have learned.
Andrew Butler at Duke University in North Carolina asked undergraduates to read material about bats and how they use echolocation to determine the size of objects and how far away they are. Some were quizzed on the information, while others had extra time to study it. Then he asked a question designed to see whether they could apply what they had learned in a different context. How would a bat determine whether an insect was moving toward it or away from it? The students who were quizzed performed significantly better.
The work applies to elementary school classrooms, he says, but adds it is important that educators understand that the "testing effect" can be achieved in different ways, including games or group activities. What matters is that children are asked to retrieve the information they have been taught. Many elementary teachers already do these sorts of activities, he says, including practice tests before the real spelling test, or "mad minutes," where students have 60 seconds to answer as many multiplication questions as they can.
At Cornell Village Public School in Markham, part of the York Region District School Board,Trish Frolic's Grade 5 class is halfway through a unit on geometry. A traditional quiz would require that they either identify or draw acute, obtuse and right-angled triangles. But Ms. Frolic asks them to create the shapes using elastics and plastic boards with rows of pegs on them. She has set up half a dozen tasks at different centres in the classroom and at each one they take a digital photo of their work so she can assess it.
The key, she says, is active learning that engages the students.
Joan Peskin, an associate professor at OISE, says it would be interesting to know whether extra quizzes are as effective as other methods that encourage active learning, in which children do more than listen to the teacher and take notes. One technique is to divide students into pairs or small groups. One student will summarize a section of the material they've just covered. The other will critique the oral summation and make additions. They switch roles for each section.
Quizzing is not in vogue and is almost a pejorative term in the education community, she says, but that does a disservice to students, especially those who struggle in the classroom.
"In the education community, we don't look enough at the evidence, and the evidence seems to be quite strong," she says. "It shows students' learning greatly improves."