Essay Exams Measure Retention By Which Method

Teachers who give tests on a daily or weekly basis--often at the expense of their popularity--can take solace in a new study out of Washington University in St. Louis. Researchers found that tests help students remember what they've been taught--including the material that doesn't appear on the exam. The findings appear in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The research team, led by psychology graduate student Jason Chan, designed three experiments to determine whether testing can enhance the long-term recall of studied material. In the first, 84 students, split into three groups, read an essay on the toucan bird. The first group took a short 22-question test on the information they'd just read but received no feedback on their performance. The second one reviewed 22 statements culled from the longer passage. The third group went home without being tested. The next day, all the students took a 44-question test--with the same 22 questions on the first day's test and 22 additional ones. The researchers found that the first group did significantly better on the questions that only appeared on day two (performing at least 9 percent better than the other groups).

In a second experiment, 72 students studied two articles on different topics. Immediately after the students read the articles, they took a 12-question test on one of the pieces. The next day, the students took a 48-question test with the same 12 questions they saw the day before, 12 more from the same article and 24 from the other article. The students did significantly better on the second set of 12 questions of related material than they did on the 24 questions about the second article. In the third study, Chan manipulated the recall methods of students--asking them, during the first round of testing, either to think of all the information related to test questions or to home in solely on the answer. On the second test, the students who thought more broadly the day before performed much better on related questions.

The findings, Chan says, indicate that courses should proceed via "a study-test-study-test schedule" rather than studying, reviewing and then being tested. "Restudying a subset of the learned material will not produce enhancement for the remaining material--presumably because restudying is a more passive learning process than is testing," Chan explains. "Most people probably do not test themselves until they feel comfortable with the material, but that probably isn't the optimal way to study. Frequent testing, not restudying, is the key to long-term retention."

Michael Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, begs to differ. He notes that over 80 published articles in the field claim that testing actually harms retention, a phenomenon called "retrieval-induced forgetting." He says Chan's findings likely only apply to the specific set of conditions in his study. "This claim may actually be dangerously misleading," Anderson warns. "It is a mistake to make the generalization that testing enhances memory for related material."

Chan acknowledges that the literature is against him, but he argues that his study approximated a college course because it used "textlike narratives" rather than word lists for subjects to memorize, which he says most of the research arguing against him employed. "One thing we know about retrieval-induced forgetting is that it is a short-lived phenomenon that typically does not last for a day," Chan points out that his study mimics students cramming for examinations by allowing participants a 24-hour delay between tests. Previous studies only allowed 20 minutes.

"One last implication for education is that it is a good idea to give short-answer exams as opposed to multiple-choice exams," Chan says. "It is unlikely for students to try to recall related information during a multiple-choice exam because they tend to answer a question by first looking at the choices, instead of trying to recall information from what they know." Sorry, Scantron fans, looks like blue books make for better learning.

This article throws light upon the top three methods used for measuring retention. The methods are: 1. Recall 2. Recognition 3. Saving.

Method # 1. Recall:

Recall is a method used for measuring retention which involves the verbal reproduction or repetition of learnt material. It is basically of two types – serial recall and free recall. In serial recall learnt material is reproduced often in the order in which it was learnt or following a specific order. Many of us can recall certain material only in a particular order. For example, if we have to locate a name in the telephone directory or word in the dictionary starting with ‘Res-‘ we cannot locate it instantly.

We mentally say the alphabets starting from A up to R and flip the pages making sure that R comes after letters O, P, Q and before letters S,T and so on. Similarly, there are people who when asked the question what is twelve multiplied by seven equivalent to (12 X 7 =?) tend to go over the arithmetic table of twelve from the beginning and only then can recall the correct answer.

In free recall, however, chunks or pieces of learnt material may be recalled freely without following any specific order. For example, every one may not go through the whole arithmetic table to recall the answer of twelve multiplied by seven. Some may reproduce the answer instantly, i.e. without following a specific order.

Method # 2. Recognition:

Recognition is evidenced when recall is either weak or absent. For instance, though you have been passing through a particular street every evening you may not recall that there was a building at a particular spot, but when you find a vacant land (because the building has been demolished) you will suddenly recognise that there was some structure or building and the land was not vacant earlier.

This shows that the image of a structure or a building has been retained and present all along but it needed a different experience, vacant land, to make you remember that there was a building once. A classical example of this process is seen in multiple choice test.

This test is often used to measure retention through recognition. If you are asked in which country the leaning tower is located, you may not remember. But if you are asked to choose your answer from a) England, b) France, c) Italy and d) Germany, you will immediately recognize Italy as the answer. This shows that unless you encounter the word, event or experience or it is presented before you, recognition does not take place. Thus, we see that in this type of retention some sort of a suggestion or clue is presented, unlike recall.

Method # 3. Saving:

The saving method is also called method of relearning. Though we may not recall or recognise the material learnt once, we realise that if we learn it again we can pick it up very soon, understand and master it. For instance, a student who learns his lessons perfectly may be unable to recall them six or seven months later. But when he starts to relearn or revise the lesson he will be able to grasp and reproduce everything with ease.

He may also consume much less time to do so, compared to what he did the first time when he learnt his lessons. H. E. Burtt tried to demonstrate this method. He taught Greek to a fifteen-month old infant by reading twenty lines of Greek poetry to him over and over at various intervals until he was three years old.

At this point, however, poetry reading was discontinued and for the next five years the child had no contact with Greek. Later, at the age of eight, he was given Greek poetry to learn. Some of the lines were what he had learnt as an infant and others were new.

He had apparently forgotten his experience with Greek as a baby; he could not recall or recognise any of the lines. But the specific lines which had been read to him in infancy were much easier for him to learn than those that were completely new. Thus, we see that recall, recognition, and saving methods are very good yardsticks to measure retention.


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