Studying and testing is not learning

After I emailed the latest weekly TeachingTip to faculty at my college, (Practice + feedback = learning. Testing + grading ≠ learning), someone sent me an article (To really learn, quit studying and take a test). The article states that students who took a recall test after reading some topic, as opposed to those who had several study sessions, “learned” the information better. The conclusion was that testing was more effective than studying. Of course taking an immediate test on a reading exercise will produce better results than studying…but this is missing the point entirely.

First, these results are obvious because the recall test requires them to actively try to remember what they read so they could answer the questions. Studying is more passive as you read, re-read, and so forth, so the brain is engaged in a very different way; the active processing does more to “pull it together”. But again, this is not the issue we should be focused on.

The problem is that we’re looking at a relatively low-level expectation – what we too often refer to as “learning”. The recall test was more effective for, guess what – recall, than was the studying. We have to adopt a different definition of what learning is. Learning is not memorization and recall of information. Learning is how to do things, with good guidance and support, running into some roadblocks along the way. Did you learn how to cook by memorizing for a test? Did you learn how to read by passing a test? Did you learn how to teach and do research by studying the textbook and passing a test? Of course not. You learn everything you do in life by doing it. You make mistakes. You think again and try it differently. You ask for help. Eventually you get it…all without taking a single test.

Learning requires active engagement in a real context to help the brain find effective ways to organize, connect, and have it stick. That’s the higher level goal of what we’re after. It’s developing a robust mental model that provides true understanding and the ability to do something useful with that information.

One more quick point. Research has shown that high school students intending to major in math and science in college don’t often really understand the principles of the field. They scored very well on their exams…but when you sit them down and have them explain certain theories, principles, or solve some problems, their mental models of the subject are inaccurate…in many cases completely wrong. Do not assume that if your students score well on your exams that they understand the material. Sit down with them, one on one, and ask them to explain things. Brace yourself – it will most likely freak you out.

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