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New research on brain function in the emerging discipline of Educational Neuroscience is linking memory (the essential result of learning) to intense and targetted educational experiences. Because testing is one of these experiences the new research provides an answer to the question of: “To test or not to test?”

The question is about learning, but there is an important and essential difference between partial learning, which can be triggered by a guess on a multiple choice test, and learning to mastery, which allows ongoing functional use of what is remembered.  Functional use enables the learner to answer questions of fact and to answer inferential questions in which facts are used to infer, to think abstractly, and to build knowledge platforms for continuous growth in the subject matter under consideration.

Advances in research and best practices in the area of improving brain function and learning outcomes have been reported in Journals of Psychology, Neuroscience and Education for more than three decades.

Learning to mastery requires;

  1. Conscious attention and intention to make a memory trace in the brain.
  2. Practice.  Practice is the number of trials it takes to remember to 100% mastery (this is different for different people).

According to the new research, testing creates the conditions that motivate the learner to practice to mastery.  Testing motivates the learner because consciously or unconsciously it is an emotionally loaded experience.  Most importantly, in the research described here, testing is the most effective method in an inferential test format where the knowledge is available for functional use one week later.

Therefore the research results described here, that testing produces the most effective long term retention of material for both remembering factual information and for inferential use, have important implications for education in general.  A full understanding of all that is implied by the research can be found by considering the following items:

 

The Research

Researchers from Purdue University under the leadership of Jeffrey Karpicke found that providing students with the opportunity to be tested produces the most effective long-term retention of material when compared to other study methods (Science, January 2011)

 

Study 1

200 college students (aged 18-24) were given a short scientific topic to learn. They were divided into four groups:

      • Group one was given the passage for five minutes and asked to study.
      • Group two was allowed four consecutive five minute periods to study.
      • Group three was asked to create a concept map (Mind Map) of the material.
      • Group four was given a five minute study period plus three practice tests (a retrieval test; a 10 minute free-form essay; and an opportunity to re-read the passage followed by another retrieval test).

 

Results

The results of the research are shown in the figure below.  Group 4 participants. Who were given three tests achieved the highest scores on answers to both direct (factual) and inferential questions.  Group 1 participants, who had only one study session with no testing, achieved the lowest scores.  The scores of the other two groups were similar and fell between the scores of Groups 1 and 4.

Chart1

Findings

Study methods that provided retrieval practice in the form of testing (finding the information in your memory bank and bringing it to mind to answer questions, i.e., remembering the material) outperformed all the other methods in a long-term recall test one week later.

Commentary

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism. It allows students the opportunity to both actively engage with the material and practice the recall in a retrieval process itself, thus strengthening the long-term memory at the level of the neuronal cell assembly. Considering it is also contrasted with Concept Mapping, a form of Mind Mapping, considered the gold standard of studying, it is important to consider why this is happening and what it says for educators at every level.

 

Study 2

Research reported by Roedinger in 2006 in The Journal of Psychological Science came to the same conclusion.  The study asked college students to read a short prose passage. The groups were given either a short period to study, repeated study opportunities or study with either one or three recall tests.

 Findings

While the repeated study group did best on the immediate recall test five minutes after completing the study (the cramming effect), after two days, and after one week, the group that had the opportunity to practice retrieval by being tested retained the most material.

Commentary

Here, too, the opportunity and necessity to take tests enhanced long-term retention of material. Continue reading to learn more about the implications of these findings.

 

Implications for Education

Since long-term retention (remembering for a long time) is key to learning success of every kind, it behoves us to pay attention to the best method to achieve this outcome for all students.

To do this, we need to examine how the key information we need to learn to develop the core skills of reading, writing and math become embedded in our brains.

To understand we need to consider how we remember and what it takes to bring this information out of where it is stored in the brain (retrieve it) for use in the task we are asked to do.

Testing to measure long-term recall and understanding of inferential information is a time honoured way of evaluating what students have learned from our teaching. However, this method has been designated by some educators as promoting “meaningless rote learning especially when students are asked to repeat or parrot back what has been learned.”

In the past four decades, a cluster of traditional educational methods, including studying for tests, learning to read by the phonic method, and other memory-based processes have been in disrepute.  These policies suggest that “children should learn by whole language methods and by constructing their own reality. They should pursue their own intrinsic interests and study in ways that are meaningful to them.”

Interestingly, while of course it is only one study, the article referred to here has attracted widespread attention.  This is because it has challenged these assumptions by demonstrating that if you practice test taking or retrieval you will actively engage with the material and remember it better long-term.

To understand this we need to examine how memory traces are made in the brain and how they are best strengthened to allow for long-term retention.  In doing so, it is important to note that to make a memory trace, the information needs to activate an association of neurons that once connected in a cell assembly will be more likely to fire together when retrieval is asked for. The efficiency of this retrieval system (i.e., having the correct answer as quickly as possible) is directly dependent on two factors:

  1. The practice factor (the number of trials it takes to remember to 100% mastery).  This will be different for different learners.
  1. The attention factor (attention is the “stuff of memory”) in that it releases the cascade of ingredients, especially adrenalin, into the bloodstream that allows a memory trace to be made, or for the signal to connect brain cells or neurons into an assembly that will fire together on demand and produce the needed information.  It is also true that the stronger the adrenalin rush, and the more the emotional centres are involved, the easier it will be to retrieve (we all remember our first kiss or a fearful childhood episode much better than routine events taking place at the same time).

This brings us to answer the question of why testing practice is more efficient than other methods in learning material.

  1. Testing is an emotionally loaded experience either because it is fear based (we're afraid to fail), or competitive in a positive way (we want to do our best to show everyone how smart we are). Thus, even unconsciously knowing we're going to be tested on material enhances our attention. We pay focused attention in a way we don't in a more diffuse learning situation.
  2. Testing allows the practice of retrieval, the very thing we will be asked to do when our performance is measured. This activates and therefore, strengthens the cell assembly that   holds the information we are looking for.

It is therefore quite obvious that studying something when you are emotionally aroused, when you are therefore paying focused attention and when you practice the very thing you will be asked to do, should be the most efficient way to learn.

Therefore, in the critical areas of learning the core skills, where memory of the patterns and systems of knowledge (like learning phonics or number facts such as the multiplication tables) are important, the best and most efficient method of learning the material should be applied.

The clear message provided by this research, and the reason why this study has been so widely circulated, is that when it is important for learners to remember information, testing them as they proceed, and using testing as an evaluation method of both knowledge and procedures, is the best method to enhance learning.

Of course it is important to note that all pieces of information are not of equal value. Nothing, nothing is more important than learning and remembering the core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic because they are the tools of future intellectual development, school work and life success. It therefore makes good sense to evaluate these skills by testing them as is done by most jurisdictions in Canada using standardized tests in Grades 4 and 7.

It is also disingenuous to protest these tests of core skills because they force “rote learning” to be regurgitated on exams, when the factors of focused and practised attention are what is at play in the testing process, and this is exactly the opposite of mindless rote learning.

The essays and scenarios to follow show the importance of creating targetted and intense learning practice so that the new learning changes the plastic brain itself.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre we focus very strongly on using brain-based information to guide our teaching methods.  Read more.

 

The Story of Why Learning Memory Facts by Testing and Re-testing Them Rigorously Is So Important

For every learner, the core skills become the tools for intellectual development throughout life. To explain what is meant by this statement, let us consider the investment in time (both in school and doing homework) of learning a number family to the point of automatic mastery.

The First Scenario

A Grade 3 student, Mary, is taught the number family 3 times 4 = 12; 4 times 3 = 12; 12 divided by 3 = 4; 12 divided by 4 = 3. Mary's homework is to learn this number family. She practices this at home by a number of repetitions called “trials” until she has mastered this fact family.

Two weeks later, the three times table is reviewed in class. Mary quickly is able to retrieve her earlier mastery through a short review, since the cell assembly for these facts is already established. Reviewing again further strengthens the memory trace (the practice effect).

Three weeks later she studies for a test on the three times table. Again, when reviewed the 3 times 4 number family is easily retrieved. She gets a perfect score on her test and the 3 times 4 number family is permanently anchored in a brain-based and sturdy cell assembly.

Four weeks later, Mary's teacher is teaching problem solving. She asks the class to solve the following problem (functional use): “The coach needed to buy tennis balls for 12 children. The balls come in sets of 3. How many sets must the coach buy so each child can have his or her own ball?”

Mary's hand is in the air after the word three with the correct answer. “Four sets,” she says as she anticipates the missing number from her memory trace 12 divided by 3 = 4. “Yes,” the teacher says, affirming to herself and the class that Mary is very clever in math.

The Second Scenario

John's Grade 3 teacher is teaching the number family 3 times 4 = 12; 4 times 3 = 12; 12 divided by 3 = 4; 12 divided by 4 = 3.  John's homework is to learn this number family. He goes home to play computer games with a friend. The next morning, he remembers his homework and looks at the number fact a few times with a minimum of attention (practice without mastery).

Two weeks later, the three times table is reviewed in class. Since John has had little practice, this appears to be a new fact. He has no cell assembly to strengthen because making a memory trace in the first place requires focused attention. This time the teacher who has been working on these number facts and has assigned practice gives very little time to the 3 times 4 = 12 number family. John does not have enough time to do the number of trials that would commit this fact to mastery.

Three weeks later, a test is announced on the three times table. John is now overwhelmed by the amount of time and trials he needs for the twelve number facts. He goes home and tries to study. He learns some of the facts like 1 times 3 = 3 and 10 times 3 = 30. He can figure out a few more by counting on his fingers but each of these examples is a new fact. He makes no memory traces even when he gets the right answer. Because the test is stressful even with the finger counting method he gets some wrong. His test result is 6 out of 10. His teacher considers this a pass. John has escaped for now; however, out of 12 facts he still has an automatic memory trace for only two.

Four weeks later, John's teacher is teaching problem solving. She asks the class to solve the following problem (functional use): “The coach needed to buy tennis balls for 12 children. The balls come in sets of 3. How many sets must the coach buy so each child can have his or her own ball?”

John knows this is about multiplication. After all, they have been working on this all month. He can visualize the balls in packets of 3. This is a new problem. Using the strategy he used in his test he sets out to count sets of 3 fingers. He is concentrating hard but he has run out of fingers.

Meanwhile, Mary has answered. His teacher asks how many children got the same result as Mary. Several children raise their hands. This breaks John's counting concentration and he has not heard the correct answer, and his teacher is on to the next question. John does not make the memory trace for the 3 times 4 = 12 fact family or for the rest of the three times table.

When he is tested with problems using these number facts, each problem is a new mathematical problem. He is overwhelmed and fails the test. He then makes the assumption that he is just not good at math.

The Third Scenario

Jane's Grade 3 teacher is teaching the three times table. On this day, she is teaching that 3 times 4 = 12, etc. She tries to make the lesson fun. She plays games with the fact family; she assigns homework on this fact family. Some of the children do this homework, but Jane's teacher does not believe in testing too much. There are other more interesting ways for the children to learn.

Two weeks later, she reviews the three times tables. This is a quick review. Several children have their hands up to answer. She assumes the children have mastered the three times table and goes on to the next lesson. Jane's teacher introduces problem solving. Again, some children appear to be able to answer quickly. Some take longer but are able to figure out the answers. She goes on to the next lesson. (It should be noted here that some children require only a few trials to achieve mastery, while most require more practice.)

The outcome for Jane and probably the others in her class is that she has made very few memory traces of the number facts in the multiplication tables. She was very slow at problem solving in multiplication. Division mystified her completely. She “hates math.” Her Grade 5 teacher sees her stress and suggests that if she has a calculator she could make progress on the problem solving and other aspects of math. Jane is happier. She also attends learning assistance with several other children in her class. They work on the Grade 5 math program.

Years later...Outcome of the Three Scenarios

Mary has mastered her number facts. She knows she is good at math. She gets good grades. She likes math class. She is headed to a university science program where she knows math is important.

John has partial mastery of his number facts. He is very ambivalent about math. He does not get good grades. It is suggested he try the non-university math stream.

Jane does not know any number facts. She continues to rely on her calculator, now an “app” on her cell phone. She feels incompetent in her math and science classes. She avoids those subjects and plans to get out of school as soon as possible.

While these three scenarios are an oversimplification of the very complex issue of how the brain learns and remembers, the basic principles stand.

 

Principles of Learning

  1. Learning and memory are intimately linked.
  1. If a learner invests the time to do the number of trials it takes him or her to make a memory trace that can be automatically retrieved (learning to mastery), that memory is there forever and can be used as needed.
  1. The third partner factor in learning and memory is focused attention. Thus the mere repetition of a fact is not enough to make a memory trace. The learner must be motivated to pay focused attention to repeat and review until the cell assembly for that fact is strong enough that this fact can be easily retrieved.
  1. The motivation to activate the partnership of attention, making memory traces, and learning to the point of mastery can be that a test is coming.
  1. Testing can motivate in two ways:
      1. Negative motivation - fear of failure and the subsequent humiliation in front of peers, teachers and parents.
      2. Positive motivation - the competitive drive to succeed to appear smart, the pride of being good at math.

The learning environment and the purpose for learning is crafted by the teacher and supported or not supported by the parents' attention and values.

Regardless of which reason is activated in the learner, the outcome will be beneficial and the investment in time of learning the core skills to automatic mastery will pay life-lasting dividends.

Indeed, not learning the core skills of reading by decoding using phonic analysis, or not learning the multiplication tables and other math facts will also have life-lasting consequences, even in the most brilliant of learners, but especially for those who are challenged by the learning requirements for their age and grade.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre the principles of learning are rigorously applied for each learner. Testing is an integral part of the teaching-learning equation.

 

The Question

Should core skills like reading, written expression, spelling and math be tested at intervals through elementary school?

The Response

  1. Learning and memory are intimate partners in building the knowledge platform we need to operate in our world in the 21st century. 
  1. Not all learning needs to be equally committed to memory, but the core skills of reading, written expression, spelling and math learned to mastery become the lifelong tools of intellectual development. These skills are the “currency” of academic and life success.
  1. Learning a skill to mastery requires the conscious attention needed to make a memory trace in the brain; therefore, there is a huge difference between learning by repetition through rote oral or written activities and learning by targetted and intense review that can be motivated by an upcoming test.
  1. The number of trials or the kind of review that successfully leads to mastery is different for each learner. While gifted learners may need only a few trials to master a fact, the child with learning disabilities often needs more trials or special input systems to learn a fact to the point of automatic retrieval; but in almost all cases they can learn the basic core skills.
  1. The human brain learns best in patterns and systems. Human beings of every age resist meaninglessness. The core skills in learning to decode and calculate are patterns and systems that are essentially meaningful unless rendered otherwise by being devalued by significant people like parents and teachers.
  1. Emotions are critical to patterned learning. The emotional climate of safety or threat impacts the lesson and triggers the emotions generated long after the learning episode is passed. Therefore, an appropriate emotional climate is essential to sound education.
  1. Human learning is dependent on complex systems. It involves attention that is both focused and peripheral. The brain absorbs information of which it is directly aware. It also responds to the larger sensory context in which the teaching occurs. Unconscious signals that reveal the teacher's beliefs both about the material in the lesson and the learner's abilities can have a powerful impact on students. For this reason, all educators should pay careful attention to all aspects of the educational environment.
  1. Learning of the core skills is developmental. The brain is partly hardwired and there are predetermined sequences of development in childhood like learning to walk and talk.

The brain is also neuroplastic and shaped by the kind of quality of experiences people have, including educational experiences. As we learn, the neurons or brain cells assemble into meaningful patterns and platforms. As the basics of language, reading and mathematics are put in place, the secondary and tertiary, etc. cell assemblies build on our ability to process more and more complex information. When these platforms do not exist, or when they are full of gaps in whole pattern mastery, the more complex assemblies cannot attach and learning becomes difficult and fragmented. The resulting stress further exacerbates the problem by pouring the cascade of ingredients into the blood stream that is directly antithetical to making memory traces, and therefore to creating learning that lasts and becomes part of the overall pattern.

For whatever reason, when this is the case development and future learning are compromised no matter how “intelligent” or naturally skilled the learner may be.

It is therefore the responsibility of educators to do everything possible to establish the basic developmental skills of reading, writing, spelling and math so that every child has an uncompromised learning future.

Therefore, to answer the question of whether to test or not to test the core skills, the response must be: That if learning the core skills to basic levels is the ultimate learning requirement of all children, and if testing motivates the teachers to teach and require practice of these skills, that leads their learners to develop mastery, then it is the teacher's responsibility to create the safe conditions and the positive emotional climate that encourages every child to want to learn to read, just as much as they want to become proficient in skills in sports as a method of achieving high esteem among their peers.

Teachers and parents need to make the connection between learning to mastery and remembering. The new research on brain function is linking memory to intense and targetted instruction.

The research article described above shows that these factors assemble powerfully and change the brain itself when a test is imminent.

Therefore, studying for tests and making robust memory traces of the basic patterns of reading and math should be considered a bank deposit, an investment for the future. We all need to remember if we put nothing in the bank, nothing will be there when we need it.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, we pay particular attention to establish the solid platforms and patterns of the core skills as an investment in each child's learning future. Targetted and intense interventions are individually designed for each student. When learning is not happening in a fluid, easy and happy manner for children or youth, their whole life is affected. To learn how the services of the Vancouver Learning Centre can facilitate learning even in the most difficult circumstances follow this link to our services and click on the conditions that apply to your child.

 

Editorial Opinion

In educational jurisdictions in Canada and the United States, and particularly in British Columbia, teachers' unions and associations have set themselves up as champions of the movement to do away with standardized testing of the core skills at the Grades 4 and 7 levels. They argue that because schools are also ranked by their test results, teachers will work to develop the skills being tested (reading, reading comprehension, vocabulary and mathematics) rather than focus on a more balanced curriculum.

The underlying philosophy in schools since the early 1970s is that “tests foster rote learning to be regurgitated on exams" and that "teachers should be teaching children to think and to construct their own reality.” This idea and its sister philosophy that promoted whole language learning to read over the traditional methods of teaching phonics, has governed the North American curriculum delivery for more than four decades. Indeed, most teachers in schools today have been taught with this underlying philosophy in mind.

While hundreds of millions of dollars in curriculum materials have been invested with this core philosophical bent, the research that supports the traditional methods they replaced is now overwhelming.Indeed, in the new discipline of Educational Neuroscience research using (fMRI) technology to observe the effect of different methods of teaching reading is showing that a targetted intense intervention using a phonics method produces changes in the brain itself, while other methods do not. (See Dehaene, Stanislas, Reading in the Brain, Penguin Books, 2009).

To understand what happens in the brains of children learning to read and do mathematics and taking tests, we need to understand the neuroscience of learning itself. Learning is being able to retrieve and remember a fact or a procedure in order to apply it to solve a problem or to learn the next level of information or skills or procedure.

Learning and Memory are Intimately Linked 

The brain creates a memory trace, an association of cells called cell assemblies, as when a child is taught that the letter A makes the long A sound in the word Ape, or that 3 times 4 =12. As these pieces of information are reviewed, especially in a highly motivated circumstance like preparing for a performance or a test, the connective trace gets stronger and stronger and becomes easier to retrieve. When a child does not learn the sound symbol association, or the fact that 3 times 4 = 12, there is nothing to retrieve. Each question becomes a new question.  The search for the answer is on.  If the child understands the process he may begin to count three sets of four, while the child who knows the number fact has produced the answer within milliseconds and can go on to solve that problem and the next one built on this information.

Thus the time the child invests in learning 3 times 4 = 12 to the point of automatic retrieval earns dividends from that practice throughout her life. Further, that child has established a memory trace she may later need to calculate, budget and make decisions. For the child forced to count or to use a calculator there is no memory trace in her brain. Each problem encountered is a new problem to be started from scratch. Further, as the curriculum has become more complex in school, she is no match for her classmates who invested the time in learning the multiplication tables to the point of automatic mastery, or the reading process by learning phonics, or science by memorizing the periodic table, etc.

Schooling is an investment in committing the basics and the curriculum to memory as perfectly as possible so that it is available for retrieval as needed in the same way as computers store data in memory.  Further, human learning takes place when the learned information is part of a meaningful pattern of information, like the phonic code or the multiplication tables.

If studying for a test is the most efficient and effective way to build up that information storage, then testing should be used thoughtfully as an educational tool and respected for the future returns it gives on the investment of the time it took to learn the information.

Of course, not every piece of curriculum content is worthy of investment or time. Instead, platforms of knowledge should be created so that students can continuously fit new knowledge into systems for understanding the context of what they are learning.  However, no platforms can be built without being fully able to decode the language; being able to spell most words and write coherent sentences and calculate using the four basic operations; and being able to understand fractions, decimals and percent.

In conclusion, if learning is remembering, then an investment must be made in learning the core skills to the best possible level of mastery. If, as the research shows, memory is primed by intense and targetted study for tests, why are we wasting time and children's lives suggesting otherwise?

We should be looking at memory as a bank deposit: if we put nothing in, nothing will be there when we need it. In my opinion if teaching the core skills in elementary school is enhanced by test taking, including such objective measures as a standardized testing program, then it is the teacher's central responsibility to ensure that both their attitudes and their actions provide each learner in their care with the core skills of intellectual development, the very ones measured by the testing program in Grades 4 and 7.

Indeed, in the future all educators need to concern themselves with the research-based findings emerging about the brain's neuroplasticity, and the central effect of classroom learning on the brains of each citizen learner in their primary care.

Geraldine Schwartz PhD

 







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