Memory & Cognition

, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 193–205 | Cite as

Multiple-choice tests stabilize access to marginal knowledge

  • Allison D. Cantor
  • Andrea N. Eslick
  • Elizabeth J. Marsh
  • Robert A. Bjork
  • Elizabeth Ligon Bjork


Marginal knowledge refers to knowledge that is stored in memory, but is not accessible at a given moment. For example, one might struggle to remember who wrote The Call of the Wild, even if that knowledge is stored in memory. Knowing how best to stabilize access to marginal knowledge is important, given that new learning often requires accessing and building on prior knowledge. While even a single opportunity to restudy marginal knowledge boosts its later accessibility (Berger, Hall, & Bahrick, 1999), in many situations explicit relearning opportunities are not available. Our question is whether multiple-choice tests (which by definition expose the learner to the correct answers) can also serve this function and, if so, how testing compares to restudying given that tests can be particularly powerful learning devices (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In four experiments, we found that multiple-choice testing had the power to stabilize access to marginal knowledge, and to do so for at least up to a week. Importantly, such tests did not need to be paired with feedback, although testing was no more powerful than studying. Overall, the results support the idea that one’s knowledge base is unstable, with individual pieces of information coming in and out of reach. The present findings have implications for a key educational challenge: ensuring that students have continuing access to information they have learned.


Memory Knowledge Testing effect 


Author Note

This research was supported by a Collaborative Activity Award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation’s 21st Century Science Initiative in Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior (EJM). We would like to thank Sarah Cox for her help with coding. We also thank the members of the Marsh Lab for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of the manuscript.


  1. Agarwal, P. K., Bain, P. M., & Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 437–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bahrick, H. P. (1984). Semantic memory content in permastore: Fifty years of memory for Spanish learning in school. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 113, 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bahrick, H. P., & Hall, L. K. (1991). Preventative and corrective maintenance of access to knowledge. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bahrick, H. P., & Phelps, E. (1988). The maintenance of marginal knowledge. In U. Neisser & E. Winograd (Eds.), Remembering Reconsidered: Ecological and traditional approaches to the study of memory (pp. 178–192). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, P. O., & Wittlinger, R. P. (1975). Fifty years of memory for names and faces: A cross-sectional approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 54–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Berger, S. A., Hall, L. K., & Bahrick, H. P. (1999). Stabilizing access to marginal and submarginal knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 5, 438–447.Google Scholar
  7. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. Healy, S. Kosslyn, & R. Shiffrin (Eds.), From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honor of William K. Estes (Vol. 2, pp. 35–67). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  8. Brown, A. S. (1991). A review of the tip-of-the-tongue experience. Psychological Bulletin, 109, 204–223.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, R., & McNeil, D. (1966). The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 325–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T., & Gosling, S. D. (2011). Amazon’s mechanical turk: A new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 3–5.Google Scholar
  11. Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2007). Testing improves long-term retention in a simulation classroom setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 514–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2008). Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing. Memory & Cognition, 36, 604–616.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen, G., & Faulkner, D. (1986). Memory for proper names: Age differences in retrieval. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4, 187–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gruneberg, M. M., Smith, R. L., & Winfrow, P. (1973). An investigation into response blockaging. Acta Psychological, 37, 187–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hart, J. T. (1965). Memory and the feeling-of-knowing experience. Journal of Educational Psychology, 56, 208–215.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Kang, S. H. K., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2007). Test format and corrective feedback modulate the effect of testing on long-term retention. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 528–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Landauer, T. K. (1986). How much do people remember? Cognitive Science, 10, 477–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Little, J. L., Bjork, E. L., Bjork, R. A., & Angello, G. (2012). Multiple-choice tests exonerated, at least of some charges: Fostering test-induced learning and avoiding test-induced forgetting. Psychological Science, 23, 1337–1344.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Marsh, E. J., & Cantor, A. D. (2014). Learning from the Test: Do’s and Don’ts for Using Multiple-Choice Tests. Chapter to appear. In M.A. McDaniel & R.F. Frey, S.M. Fitzpatrick, & H.L. Roediger (Eds.), Integrating Cognitive Science with Innovative Teaching in STEM Disciplines. (in press) Google Scholar
  20. Marsh, E. J., Roediger, H. L., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6, 194–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Marsh, E. J., Fazio, L. K., & Goswick, A. E. (2012). Memorial consequences of testing school-aged children. Memory, 20, 899–906.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 494–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Nelson, T. O., Gerler, D., & Narens, L. (1984). Accuracy of feeling-of-knowing judgments for predicting perceptual identification and relearning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 113, 282–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., & Sciartelli, S. M. (2013). The power of successive relearning: Improving performance on course exams and long-term retention. Educational Psychology Review, 25, 523–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Read, J. D., & Bruce, D. (1982). Longitudinal tracking of difficult memory retrievals. Cognitive Psychology, 14, 280–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Roediger, H. L., III, & Marsh, E. J. (2005). The positive and negative consequences of multiple choice testing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 1155–1159.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Roediger, H. L., III, Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382–395.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Tulving, E., & Pearlstone, Z. (1966). Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 381–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Wixted, J. T. (2004). On Common Ground: Jost’s (1897) Law of Forgetting and Ribot’s (1881) Law of Retrograde Amnesia. Psychological Review, 11, 864–879.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Yarmey, A. D. (1973). I recognize your face but I can’t remember your name: Further evidence on the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. Memory & Cognition, 1, 287–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allison D. Cantor
    • 1
  • Andrea N. Eslick
    • 2
  • Elizabeth J. Marsh
    • 1
  • Robert A. Bjork
    • 3
  • Elizabeth Ligon Bjork
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Psychology and NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of Social SciencesWartburg CollegeWaverlyUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations