Learning from Total Failure


In education, a test is usually used to measure learning. However, the last decade has seen an explosion of research demonstrating that tests can also dramatically improve learning - the testing effect. Most recently, a surprising discovery has been made that a test can enhance learning even when it is given before the material has been taught. Hence, when students are tested completely unfamiliar material (e.g., foreign language vocabulary), and will inevitably get all the test questions wrong, subsequent learning of that topic is enhanced. This effect has very significant implications for educational settings, and we seek to understand why the effect occurs.

The first demonstrations of the testing effect involved 3 phases. Participants first studied the material (e.g. a text). Next, one group took a test on the material, while a second group simply studied the correct answers. A final test assessed how much learning had taken place. Taking the interim test led to better final performance than restudying the material, and later research showed the effect was further enhanced if initial answers were corrected with feedback.

One possible explanation for the testing effect is that after thinking of a (wrong) answer, people are highly motivated to learn the correct answer. This particular explanation suggests that testing might be helpful even before the first encounter with the to-be-studied material, as has recently been observed. For example, if you were asked to guess the meaning of a rare English word such as "roke" before ever being told its true meaning (mist), then you would be especially good at remembering that meaning on a later test. It is this benefit of initial tests prior to learning (known as test-potentiated learning - TPL) that is the focus of the current proposal. 

The Current Project

We will test a number of potential explanations for the effects of initial tests (TPL) in three strands of research. Strands 1 and 2 will use unfamiliar word pairs and face-word pairs. The former are foreign language items (Finnish nouns and their English language meanings), and the latter are unfamiliar faces, and facts associated with those faces (e.g. name/occupation). The Finnish vocabulary is used because it has clear implications for foreign language learning. Also, Finnish words specifically are not similar to English words, which guarantees that the answers to the initial test will be incorrect. Face-name learning has implications for more social and work-place situations. In the final Strand 3, more complex word-based materials (texts and general knowledge) will be used to extend the findings from Strands 1 and 2 to a range of classroom situations. Participants will know nothing about these materials in advance.

In a prototypical experiment using Finnish vocabulary, all trials will start with the presentation of a Finnish word. In the "test" condition, participants will be asked to guess the meaning of the word before being given the true meaning. A "study" condition, in which no guess is made, will serve as the control. It is expected, given previous research in our laboratory, that guessing will enhance memory for the true meaning.

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