Improving Learning through Formative Testing

I spent 20 years as CEO of a testing company, so I had lots of opportunity to get a very good sense of how our life science clients were using testing within their training programs. Of the millions of tests that were delivered on our platform, virtually 100 percent were summative assessments. (Summative assessments are assessments that are given at the completion of a training program to determine mastery of the material.) This is understandable. It’s a large part of what training departments do: train, test and certify.

But there is another type of assessment that is just as important, especially in its impact on learning: formative assessments. Formative assessments are assessments that help students learn. Lots of research over the past few decades points to the significant role testing can have as a learning tool.

Formative assessments can take various forms. They can be diagnostic tests, self-assessments, module-level tests with feedback, pre-tests, review and reinforcement tests, etc – basically any test for learning rather than a test of learning.

Formative tests can be used:

• As pretests prior to a course
• During the course itself
• As review and reinforcement after the course

Let’s look at each of these cases.

Testing Prior to the Learning Event
You might think that pretesting prior to a course has only two possible uses: As a diagnostic test to see what the students already know or as a benchmark to be compared against a posttest for purposes of measuring a gain score. But there is a third use – to improve student learning during the course.

It might seem counterintuitive to test students on what they have not yet learned, but experiments have shown that it improves learning. For example, in a 2009 study (“Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning” Nate Kornell, Matthew Jensen Hays, and Robert A. Bjork, Journal of Educational Psychology) the authors tested recall of facts from an article. One group read the material and was then tested. The second group tried to answer the questions in a pretest (these were the unsuccessful retrieval attempts referred to in the article title) before reading the material and was then tested. Figure 1 shows the results across several experimental conditions (study time, final test delay). Under all experimental conditions the pretest-study group outperformed the study-only group.

Testing During the Learning Event
We are all familiar with module level tests in online courses. Often they are used as mastery tests. (A passing score on module N permits the student to move on to module N+!.) But what if instead of relatively large module level tests you gave more frequent lesson level tests?

In a recent study (“Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance While Reducing Achievement Gaps”, Pennebaker, Gosling and Ferrell, PLOS One, November 20, 2013) the authors gave daily on-line quizzes, with feedback, to a psychology class that was traditionally taught by lecture only. The quizzes took 10 minutes at the beginning of each lecture; there were eight questions per quiz.

The authors then compared the outcomes (lecture only vs. lecture plus daily tests) on final grades at the end of the course. Grades were half a letter grade higher for the lecture plus testing group than for the lecture only group (note: the TOWER group in Figure 2 was the experimental group).

What was really fascinating was that the effect extended to courses the students took that were not part of the study. Apparently the students in the experimental group used the active learning technique they had been introduced to in the psychology class and applied it to their other courses.

Testing After the Learning Event
Many studies have shown that post-event testing for review and reinforcement is far superior to merely rereading the material. This is commonly known as the testing effect. For example, In a 2006 study (“Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention” Psychological Science, Henry” L. Roediger, III and Jeffrey D. Karpicke) found that students who were exposed to three repeated testing sessions outperformed students who were permitted to reread the material three additional times (Figure 3 note: S = study session, T = practice test).

The bottom line is clear in all cases: Testing improves long-term learning.

Steven Just, Ed.D. is CEO of Princeton Metrics. Steven can be reached at Check out his blog at

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