The “Testing Effect” describes the power of retrieval. Its most common application can be seen in testing in school exams; to help measure learning and assign grades. In the corporate world, this process is often shunned as a facile means of overcoming employee resistance or circumventing policy & procedure issues.
Testing as a whole has come under fire in recent years. Various elementary, secondary and post-secondary learners and academic bodies have cited that testing in the traditional manor is not an effective means of determining comprehension and this notion has carried over into corporate learning to some extent. Testing has gotten a “bad rap” and it is often related to memorization.
In their book “Make It Stick”, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel cited that a “2010 New York Times article reported on a scientific Study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50% more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested.”
The book, Make It Stick, suggests that the New York Times article would seem like good news, but here’s how it was greeted in many online comments:
“Once again, another author confuses learning with recalling information.”
“I personally would like to avoid as many tests as possible, especially with my grades on the line,. Trying to learn in a stressful environment is no way to help retain information.”
“Nobody should care whether memorization is enhanced by practice testing or not. Our children cannot do much of anything anymore.”
eLearning can be an important component of learning new skills, enhancing product knowledge, reinforcing policies and procedures or changing behaviour, but only when a well-defined testing process is associated with any given topic or group of topics. This process enhances retrieval of information and can have an important influence on work practices; but only when content is coupled with a well thought out testing process that is extended over time.
I suppose the next question is how? How does the process of retrieval of information enhance memory? The basic concept is this - the act of retrieving information from memory makes it easier to retrieve later. We retrieve information from memory every moment of every day; how to tie a knot, how to start your car, how to program your remote (well maybe not this one), how to add and subtract, etc. These may seem common and mundane but they are made thus through the repetition of retrieving information repeatedly, thereby embedding knowledge more permanently.
I think many of us can bare witness to the effects of retrieval strength in our daily lives, for example, if we go away for an extended trip, our minds would be far away from the normal processes and routines we follow daily. As a result, when we return, we have lost some information, perhaps: passwords, log in procedures, actions that we may undertake less frequently but typically would recall when retrieved periodically. This can be described as the ebbing of retrieval strength. We are not reminded of the information and gradually we forget.
What does it all mean for eLearning? I think we have to re-consider how we perceive testing, its frequency and the veracity of the testing process. In designing learning programs within corporate environments, we often view learning as a one-time event or a one-time window. We tend to design testing around that event or window but do not plan repeated opportunities to review content, refresh knowledge and enhance retrieval strength through a more rigorous testing process over the long term.
The process need not be onerous. We recommend offering shorter and more persistent testing on information. Make sure the information is prioritized, meaning focus on topics of greater importance to your organization’s mission. For example you may evaluate your learning calendar for a given year and consider reintroduction of key learning principles along with repeated testing opportunities. This can be coupled with the introduction of new content each calendar year.
Making the process fun and “not boring” will have an important effect on learning and embedding information making it easier to retrieve, however and perhaps more importantly, designing an ongoing process of presenting the prioritized information through multiple channels while reinforcing the learning process with testing is essential to effecting change through learning in your organization.