Practice is Best Practice

by | Jan 11, 2017 | Transforming Education | 0 comments

As I have sat down with students who are not doing well in my class over the past 17 years, one recurring conversation has gone something like this: “Mr. Harrison, I’m studying for your tests, but I’m still not doing well on them. I don’t know what else to do.” I would reply, “Well, how exactly are you ‘studying’?”

The responses have usually gone something like this: “Well, I read over the study guide, I read over the notes, I read the book…”

In the students’ defense, more often than not, they had worked very hard and used the resources I had provided them. I had also worked very hard on their behalf. I had spent countless hours year after year refining and enhancing my notes, posting them on my blog, printing them out for some. I had provided links and videos, books and summaries. I had worked with my PLC to develop lengthy study guides. The problem was students hadn’t really ever done anything effective with it. Unfortunately for both of us, there is very little evidence that simply “reading over” notes and resources helps the learner to learn.

At one point, I decided to try something new to force students to have to interact with the material. Instead of spending many hours making the notes and study guides better, more colorful, more available, I decided to start putting my time into making practice quizzes in Moodle (iLearn) that students could take as they studied. I set up the quizzes so they could take them as many times as they wanted and encouraged them to do so until they had earned a perfect score. Sometimes, I built in feedback so students would know immediately whether they had answered correctly and why. Sometimes my practice tests contained actual items they would later see on their test, and sometimes not.

My experiment produced extremely favorable results. Test averages jumped. Anxiety levels on the day of the test seemed to plunge. And the two probably had an effect on each other.

What I had discovered in my efforts to help students learn how to study is one of the simplest, yet one of the most strongly-supported, researched-based best practices that cognitive psychologists have long recognized to be effective at helping students learn: retrieval practice.

Teachers who use Moodle have the advantage of helping students engage in valid retrieval practice activities. Students who take practice quizzes on Moodle have the opportunity to not simply answer the questions as they would on a paper practice test, but also have the opportunity to receive immediate feedback on their answers. In fact, even getting questions wrong on a practice test using such a format was better than simply reading the right answers. Here is what one cognitive psychologist found:

Incorrectly retrieving an answer and then receiving feedback is more beneficial than simply reading the correct answer without making a retrieval attempt. In one set of studies with vocabulary learning, students made guesses on items they had no idea about – their guesses had no basis whatsoever in any knowledge (Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2014). The benefit of generating errors during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 644-667). After these guesses, they then saw the correct response as feedback. At test, students were much more likely to identify the correct definitions of the studied words if they had previously made an incorrect guess and then seen the correct response, compared to just seeing the correct response without making a guess.

Helping students use retrieval practice as a study strategy is best practice. Using Moodle to create practice quizzes is a highly effective way to implement this best practice. This is just one more way Moodle empowers teachers to “work smarter, not harder”, to implement strategies that actually work, and to increase teacher effectiveness exponentially.


For further reading…

Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their
applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), Psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education, (pp. 1-36). Oxford: Elsevier.

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