How frequent, low-stakes online assessments can help improve student learning and retention.
You may think that comparing online assessments to hitting the gym is an odd comparison—but it’s an accurate one when considering strengthening learning pathways in students’ brains.
Take, for example, the principle of deconditioning. To maintain their physical fitness and endurance, athletes must routinely exercise. Stop exercising and their level of conditioning begins to dramatically decline. Studies have shown, however, that athletes who need to take time off from training can still maintain a level of fitness if they exercise once a week.
Several analogous concepts can apply to student learning. One example is Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve–the fact that learned knowledge is not durable, but can be lost if not rehearsed. “Time on task” is also recognized as a major factor in learning gains. In general, the more quality, focused time spent on an activity, the better the related learning outcomes.
This raises the question of what counts as “quality” – is there a specific way of spending the time or arranging the time that results in better performance?
Optimizing for memory
These concepts are related to the notion of spaced repetition. Rather than bingeing on information (for instance, pulling an all-nighter before an exam), students should study a little each day or every other day to refresh the information on a consistent basis. Without this rehearsal of knowledge, memory retention drops over time.
Certain types of knowledge may naturally have longer retention, such as mnemonics, rhymes, acronyms (blue line below) as opposed to random strings of digits and letters (purple line). Knowledge that is practiced can gradually move from quickly decaying (purple) to longer-lived (green, red, blue) through practice. This repeated practice explains how a person can remember certain random strings of information such as a locker combination, identification numbers, or license plate.
Order and structure can also help with retention. Rather than remembering dozens of formulas, one can learn the principle behind them, which is easier to remember for longer periods of time.
Practices for efficiency
With the importance of frequency established, the next step is to determine what students should be doing during these regular study sessions. Many instructors have found learning benefits by utilizing the method of frequent, low-stakes testing.
Low-stakes testing can be any sort of assessment that doesn’t have a large impact on final grades, unlike an exam that could make up 10-25 percent of the final grade. With frequent, low-stakes assessments, students get regular feedback that helps guide their studying and expectantly makes them more effective and efficient studiers.
This also helps preclude a misconception that simply reading the text or notes is sufficient – active use of the information in the context of a problem is key.
So, as an educator, how do you facilitate this behavior? Rather than assign weekly homework or homework limited to the days on which class meets, you can use online assessment tools to provide more frequent assignments designed to improve studying and retention.
Assessments like workouts
Just as a workout can be classified based on the type (easy or hard, long or short) these frequent assignments should also vary in length and difficulty. Collections such as WebAssign General Chemistry, sort questions into the following categories to make the assignment creation process easier:
- Exercises that focus on a broader content area, similar to traditional homework
- Skill questions that provide focused practice and support on a particular skill
- Concept-mastery questions that assess student ability to connect concepts in the framework of a larger problem
- Final-exam questions that assess student ability to integrate a wide range of chemical concepts in a single question, suitable for final exams or year-end reviews
This lets a user easily create “easy workout” assignments of exercises and skill questions, and “hard workout” assignments of concept mastery questions, with the added possibility of a nice well-rounded workout assignment to review for the final exam.
Let’s continue with the athletics analogy and see what we can learn from the process of training for a marathon: Marathon training programs (1, 2, 3) could be considered similar to a “syllabus” for a “semester” of preparation for a big “exam” at the end. For example, class assignments should be varied according to your semester plans and desired outcomes.
In both athletic and academic cases, you are trying to drive adaptation – and this adaptation can’t be rushed. Marathon programs frequently have shorter “midterm” races as a check-in to gauge performance and set expectations for the target marathon. The longest long run, a “practice exam,” if you will, is scheduled a few weeks prior to the “final” to give time for recovery and correction of problems that were identified.
Every plan has frequent practice to maintain and improve fitness with rarely more than a single day of rest in a row. Even the more advanced plans (1,2) for experienced runners have these characteristics – no matter your level of training, a coach would not suggest resting for 16 weeks, running 26 miles the night before, and then trying to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon. There are no shortcuts to success.
In summary, you can help your students exercise their minds and prepare for success with:
- Frequent, low-stakes assignments that require regular, active engagement with your course material
- A long-term plan for the semester that gradually increases in difficulty, with appropriate feedback along the way – feedback that occurs early enough for students to alter and improve how they prepare
Have a great term – hit the ground running and sustain that momentum!