GUEST POST: Testing in the Classroom: The Importance of Feedback
By: Carissa DiPietro
Carissa DiPietro is a second year graduate student studying Psychology at Rhode Island College. Her research focuses on the application of cognitive psychology to the field of education and identifying predictors of academic success. More specifically, she is interested in how different individual and contextual factors can be manipulated to maximize learning and memory, both in the classroom and more broadly. Carissa is currently interviewing for Cognitive Psychology PhD positions with the intention to begin her PhD this fall.
Last semester I began a position as a teaching assistant for a psychological research methods course. I anticipated a variety of potential challenges prior to the start of my first semester. One challenge that I did not anticipate? Having to schedule a course so that all necessary material could be covered in just 16 weeks. This timeline, further restricted by holidays, institutional schedule changes, and (this year) a national election, required constant consideration as I assisted my students in the completion of their final research projects. After reflecting and speaking to senior faculty in my department, I realized this is a challenge that many instructors encounter in an effort to balance the breadth and depth of course content. In my first 16 weeks as an instructor it quickly became apparent that it is not a matter of if certain content is excluded from a course, but which. I think as we contemplate this question, it is important to reconsider which activities maximize learning and, as such, are worth the extra time.
There has been a push in recent years to prioritize teaching over assessment in K-12 education. At the college level, I’ve noticed that assessments are often given minimal attention after exam day. In the interest of maximizing instruction time, new content is often introduced in the following class session and exam grades are increasingly being made available to students online through learning-management systems like Blackboard and Canvas. Furthermore, because the development of exams is time-consuming and professors frequently reuse the questions over several semesters, students often never see the exam after it’s been handed in. Exams are widely understood and implemented as an assessment tool at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level; however, testing is less commonly considered as a tool to facilitate learning.
Testing is a form of retrieval practice, a learning strategy that requires students to bring previously learned information to mind. Research by cognitive psychologists demonstrates that retrieval practice has positive effects on student retention, overall (1). While some might see courses with many tests as assessment focused, frequent tests can benefit both students and faculty by simultaneously facilitating learning and identifying content areas that call for greater attention.
The learning gains associated with retrieval practice occur with or without feedback (1). However, the absence of feedback does carry risks, particularly when student attempts at retrieval are unsuccessful. When students retrieve information during a formal test, they do so because they believe the information answers the question. Without feedback, information retrieved may be remembered as correct, even when it is not. This can lead testing to have a negative impact on learning, rather than the positive effects typically seen, through a phenomenon known as the negative testing effect (Dr. Cindy Nebel wrote about this previously). Multiple-choice exams put students at particular risk of this negative testing effect, as incorrect alternatives are provided to the student alongside the correct answer, potentially increasing the chance that an incorrect answer will be produced. These alternatives are less likely to be retrieved in other testing formats where answers must be produced spontaneously, such as on short-answer exams. As such, failure to provide feedback may be a greater threat to student learning on multiple-choice tests than it is with other assessment formats.
In an attempt to maximize the beneficial effects of multiple-choice tests, a team of researchers from Rider University in New Jersey created the Instant Feedback Assessment Form (IF-AT). The IF-AT, which resembles a cross between a scantron answer sheet and a scratch-off lottery ticket, is a commercial test item created to provide students with instant feedback during an exam. When students answer a question correctly and ‘scratch off’ the corresponding box on the IF-AT answer sheet, a star is revealed. If the student does not select the correct answer, they may continue responding until the correct answer is selected. The format of the IF-AT allows instructors to grant partial credit to secondary attempts to answer a question or to provide credit only for responses that were correct on the student’s first attempt. In either case, the student is made aware of the right answer prior to leaving the exam, combatting the negative testing effect and facilitating accurate learning and retention of the tested material.
The IF-AT is a useful tool for providing feedback during testing and may be an excellent choice for instructors with limited class time available for exam review. Epstein and colleagues found that the immediate feedback provided by the IF-AT increased retention more than standard feedback (i.e. showing students the correct answer after some delay) (2). In addition, data suggest that students prefer immediate feedback and that it may be particularly beneficial for students with high test-anxiety (3, 4). However, it is not the only method of providing feedback, and some data suggest that it may not be effective in all instances. A study conducted at Purdue University showed no benefits of the answer-until-correct format and proposed that delayed feedback may be better for student learning (5). Thus, more research is needed to determine which method is most beneficial and what factors might influence this.
Some debate exists regarding the most effective way to present testing-related feedback to students. But while each method presents practical advantages and disadvantages, one thing remains clear: test feedback can be a powerful tool for facilitating learning and combatting the negative testing effect. When we provide feedback to our students, we effectively prioritize both assessment and learning.
(1) Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 20-27.
(2) Epstein, M. L., Lazarus, A. D., Calvano, T. B., Matthews, K. A., Hendel, R. A., Epstein, B. B., et al. (2002). Immediate feedback assessment technique promotes learning and corrects inaccurate first responses. The Psychological Record, 52, 187-201.
(3) Epstein, M. L., & Brosvic, G. M. (2002). Students Prefer the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique. Psychological Reports, 90, 1136–1138.
(4) DiBattista, D., & Gosse, L. (2006). Test anxiety and the immediate feedback assessment technique. Journal of Experimental Education, 74, 311-327.
(5) Butler, A. C., Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2007). The effect of type and timing of feedback on learning from multiple-choice tests. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 13, 273–281.