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The benefits of testing for learning on later performance

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A Commentary to this article was published on 07 January 2015

Abstract

Testing has been shown to enhance retention of learned information beyond simple studying, a phenomena known as test-enhanced learning (TEL). Research has shown that TEL effects are greater for tests that require the production of responses [e.g., short-answer questions (SAQs)] relative to tests that require the recognition of correct answers [e.g., multiple-choice questions (MCQs)]. High stakes licensure examinations have recently differentiated MCQs that require the application of clinical knowledge (context-rich MCQs) from MCQs that rely on the recognition of “facts” (context-free MCQs). The present study investigated the influence of different types of educational activities (including studying, SAQs, context-rich MCQs and context-free MCQs) on later performance on a mock licensure examination. Fourth-year medical students (n = 224) from four Quebec universities completed four educational activities: one reading-based activity and three quiz-based activities (SAQs, context-rich MCQs, and context-free MCQs). We assessed the influence of the type of educational activity on students’ subsequent performance in a mock licensure examination, which consisted of two types of context-rich MCQs: (1) verbatim replications of previous items and (2) items that tested the same learning objective but were new. Mean accuracy scores on the mock licensure exam were higher when intervening educational activities contained either context-rich MCQs (Mean z-score = 0.40) or SAQs (M = 0.39) compared to context-free MCQs (M = −0.38) or study only items (M = −0.42; all p < 0.001). Higher mean scores were only present for verbatim items (p < 0.001). The benefit of testing was observed when intervening educational activities required either the generation of a response (SAQs) or the application of knowledge (context-rich MCQs); however, this effect was only observed for verbatim test items. These data provide evidence that context-rich MCQs and SAQs enhance learning through testing compared to context-free MCQs or studying alone. The extent to which these findings generalize beyond verbatim questions remains to be seen.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the Medical Council of Canada Research and Development Fund #MCC1/1112. The authors would like to thank Ms. Linda Bergeron, MSc, and Ms. Katharine Fisher for their help and support with the realization of the study.

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Correspondence to Meghan M. McConnell.

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McConnell, M.M., St-Onge, C. & Young, M.E. The benefits of testing for learning on later performance. Adv in Health Sci Educ 20, 305–320 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10459-014-9529-1

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