Testing can improve learning among young and old people

Testing can improve learning among young and old people alike, according to new research from Rice University.

ASHLEY MEYER

ASHLEY MEYER

The study found that regardless of their age, intelligence or whether they work or attend college, people appear to learn more by taking tests rather than merely rereading or studying information. The research was published in the March 2013 edition of Psychology and Aging.

“There is a significant body of research examining the benefits of testing among young students,” said Ashley Meyer ’11, the study’s lead author. Currently a cognitive psychologist with the Houston Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence, Meyer conducted the research when she was a psychology graduate student at Rice. “Our study builds on existing findings and supports the idea that tests can increase learning and retention in adults of all ages, regardless of intelligence level.”

In the study’s experiment, adults of different ages improved their retention of new information approximately 17 points (approximately two letter grades) – just as much as college students – if they were tested on the material and received feedback on their scores, rather than just restudying the materials. Participants who took the final test on the same day as the study period did significantly better than participants who took it two days later, according to the study. However, participants still showed improved memory for previously tested material compared to restudied material, even after the two-day delay.

Jessica Logan, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and a co-author of the research paper, said the study has important implications for employers looking to expand their workforce or improve employee performance.

JESSICA LOGAN

JESSICA LOGAN

“Our study suggests that older employees can obtain and maintain a high level of job-related information through training,” Logan said. “It also shows that employees regardless of age can greatly benefit from testing activities as a way to sharpen their on-the-job skills.”

“Working adults often need to gain new skills or knowledge as they progress through their careers,” Meyer said. “Our study proposes that testing may be one way to help them advance.”

The study included a sample of 60 college students aged 18-25, 60 adults aged 18-25 and 60 adults aged 55-65. All participants either attended school or lived in the Houston area. The students were recruited online from Rice University and received partial course credit while the other participants were recruited online and via community flyers and received a small payment. All participants took an IQ test before starting the experiment to ensure that a potential difference in intelligence level was not the only factor contributing to the relative benefits of testing compared to restudying.

Participants had 15 minutes to study and read materials on four topics: tsunamis, armadillos, the human heart and black holes. After completing some math problems, which served as a distraction from what they had read, the participants completed a multiple-choice test on two of the topics. They received feedback on their performance from researchers. For example, “You got 7 out of 10 questions correct.”

In addition to taking a multiple-choice test, the participants restudied the other two topics that had not been included in the test. After completing another set of math problems, some participants took the final test right away while others took it two days later. This final test covered all four topics and was more difficult since it required participants to write answers rather than select from multiple choices.
Since all the study participants had some college education, the authors hope that future studies will look at adults with less formal education to see if this testing benefit occurs regardless of education level.

The study, “Taking the Testing Effect Beyond the College Freshman: Benefits for Lifelong Learning,” is available online at http://bit.ly/16poSV2. The research was funded by Rice University.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.