TestchoicesTests terrify people, especially when used for summative assessment. But in reality, tests have also helped students learn the material. Retrieval practice, also known as test enhanced learning or the testing effect, has been demonstrated to have more benefits than re-studying the material or multiple choice tests. As per Henry L. Roediger et al.

If students are quizzed frequently, they tend to study more and with more regularity. Quizzes also permit students to discover gaps in their knowledge and focus study efforts on difficult material; furthermore, when students study after taking a test, they learn more from the study episode than if they had not taken the test…

10 benefits of testing

Here are a list of benefits adapted from a list put together by Dr. Henry Roediger et al:

  1. Aids later retention

retrieval graph

  1. Identifies gaps in knowledge
  • Testing helps students learn because it helps them understand what facts they might not know, so they can allocate future study time accordingly.
  1. Causes students to learn more from the next learning episode
  • Retrieval practice can enhance learning during future study sessions. That is, when students take a test and then restudy material, they learn more from the presentation than they would if they restudied without taking a test. This outcome is called test-potentiated learning (Izawa, 1966).
  1. Produces better organization of knowledge
  • Gates (1917) postulated that one of the reasons retrieval practice leads to increased performance is that retrieval (or recitation, as he called it) causes students to organize information more than does reading. He suggested that as students actively recall material, they are more likely to notice important details and weave them into a cohesive structure.
  1. Improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts
  • In a series of experiments, Butler (2010) recently demonstrated that repeated testing not only increases retention of facts and concepts learned from prose passages, but also increases transfer of knowledge to new contexts (relative to repeated studying).
  1. Facilitate retrieval of material that was not tested
  • Chan et al. concluded that testing not only improves retention for information covered within a test, but also improves retention for non-tested nformation, at least when that information is related to the tested information. This is called retrieval-induced facilitation.
  1. Improves metacognitive monitoring
  • Testing causes students to become less overconfident in the judgments of learning (even to the point of underconfidence). Because tests generally improve metacognition, educators should encourage their students to self-test during while studying.
  1. Prevents interference from prior material when learning new material
  • An indirect benefit of testing is that tests create a release from proactive interference. Proactive interference occurs when sets of materials are learned in succession
  • Previous material learned influences the retention of new materials in a negative manner. Thus, proactive interference refers to the poorer retention of material learned later, caused by prior learning. (Underwood, 1957; Crowder, 1976)
  1. Provides feedback to instructors
  • Formative assessment not only helps teachers better understand what their students know, but also aims to improve the metacognitive judgments of the students’ own knowledge. Students will be better able to assess their current knowledge state and their goal knowledge state, as well as understand what steps they need to take to close that gap if they are given proper feedback.
  1. Encourages students to study
  • A year-end survey indicated that students felt that the periodic quizzes:
  1. Gave them a chance to practice questions that would be similar to exam questions
  2. Helped identify important topics in the course
  3. Caused students to come to lectures more often
  4. Caused students to pay more attention
  5. Allowed students to better understand what they had learned during each lecture

Criticisms to this method

There are, however, criticisms to this form of learning. Examples include:

  1. It takes time
  2. May lead to rote memorization
  3. While some information is recalled with testing, others might be lead to a phenomenon called “retrieval induced forgetting”
  4. The construct of some tests might lead to creation of erroneous knowledge

Further learning:

  1. Larsen DP, Butler AC, Roediger HL 3rd.  Test-enhanced learning in medical education. Med Educ. 2008 Oct;42(10):959-66. PMID: 18823514
  2. Larsen DP, Butler AC, Roediger HL 3rd. Comparative effects of test-enhanced learning and self-explanation on long-term retention. Med Educ. 2013 Jul;47(7):674-82 PMID: 23746156 
  3. Larsen DP, Butler AC, Roediger HL 3rd. Repeated testing improves long-term retention relative to repeated study: a randomised controlled trial. Med Educ. 2009 Dec;43(12):1174-81. PMID: 19930508 
  4. Roediger HL 3rd, Butler AC. The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends Cogn Sci. 2011 Jan;15(1):20-7. PMID: 20951630 
  5. Karpicke JD, Roediger HL 3rd. The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science. 2008 Feb 15;319(5865):966-8. PMID: 18276894 
  6. Karpicke JD, Blunt JR. Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science. 2011 Feb 11;331(6018):772-5. PMID: 21252317 
  7. Larsen DP, Butler AC, Lawson AL, Roediger HL 3rd. The importance of seeing the patient: test-enhanced learning with standardized patients and written tests improves clinical application of knowledge. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2013 Aug;18(3):409-25. PMID: 22618856 
  8. Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice. UCLA Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab

Javier Benitez, MD

Javier Benitez, MD

ALiEM Featured Contributor
Javier Benitez, MD


Medical doctor, tweets not medical advice or endorsements. Interested in #MedEd & technology. Always learning. I'm no expert. No financial conflict of interest.
Javier Benitez, MD