Taking Tough Tests (and Failing) Improves Future Learning
Abstract (via Nate Kornell, Matthew Jensen Hays, and Robert A. Bjork)
Taking tests enhances learning. But what happens when one cannot answer a test question—does an unsuccessful retrieval attempt impede future learning or enhance it? The authors examined this question using materials that ensured that retrieval attempts would be unsuccessful. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants were asked fictional general-knowledge questions (e.g., “What peace treaty ended the Calumet War?”). In Experiments 3–6, participants were shown a cue word (e.g., whale) and were asked to guess a weak associate (e.g., mammal); the rare trials on which participants guessed the correct response were excluded from the analyses. In the test condition, participants attempted to answer the question before being shown the answer; in the read-only condition, the question and answer were presented together. Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhanced learning with both types of materials. These results demonstrate that retrieval attempts enhance future learning; they also suggest that taking challenging tests—instead of avoiding errors—may be one key to effective learning.
“The results also suggest that, in situations where tests and study opportunities are interleaved or testing is followed by feedback, the benefits of testing go beyond the benefits attributable to the learning that happens on successful tests.”