What Is the Testing Effect?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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The testing effect is the tendency to acquire and retain knowledge more effectively by being tested on it, rather than drilling or repeating lessons. This phenomenon has been a subject of study among educators since the early 20th century, and numerous studies have confirmed it. Researchers have come up with a number of explanations for how and why the testing effect works. This information can be important for developing effective classroom education techniques.

One theory about the testing effect argues that the activity of actively recalling information in a test environment helps the brain retrieve it, and creates a better neural connection for finding the information in the future. If the test environment is so challenging that students cannot recall the information, no learning takes place. By contrast, an overly simplistic test environment may also be detrimental to learning, as students may not be forced to actually recall the information.

Reinforcement may also play a role in the testing effect. Humans, like many organisms, thrive on reinforcement and tend to learn more effectively in reinforcing environments. If a student successfully recalls information and performs well on a test, the good mark on the examination may reinforce her performance. She wants to repeat the performance on future tests for the same reward, and this encourages the brain to retain information.


This psychological phenomenon can be an important thing to consider in test design. In multiple choice testing, students only have to recognize a concept. This contrasts with blank prompts, where recall is engaged and the student must actually remember. Such tests seem to create more of a testing effect, making it more likely that students will learn the information. With multiple choice tests, students may forget the material after the test because they were not forced to recall it under pressure.

The open versus closed book debate is also a topic of interest among researchers interested in the testing effect. Under the logic that recall is better than recognition, closed books would seem more appropriate. Students taking open book tests, however, may engage critical thinking skills. This could result in a deeper understanding of the underlying concept, and increased learning. An open book could be more appropriate for tests where teachers want students to develop critical thinking skills.

Students may experience a clash between the testing effect and test anxiety. Some students do not perform well on tests because they get nervous, and may make mistakes or fail to recall information that they actually know very well. Some proponents of open book testing believe this approach can reduce stress and allow students to concentrate on critical thinking during the examination.


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Post 2

The testing effect worked on me when I was in school, simply because I had a competitive streak and wanted to do better than anyone else on my tests! So if I knew a test would result, I would study harder so I would get a better grade.

I think humans are more motivated by fear than we want to admit. If there are negative consequences on the other side of a failed test, then a student is much more likely to learn the material, if he or she cares about the consequences. If not, then it's a 50-50 shot whether the student will learn it or not.

The student whose attitude is "It doesn't matter whether I learn this crap or not" may not learn it whether a test will be given or not. They just don't care.

Post 1

I'd say testing anxiety is probably worse on standardized tests. This is because so much more seems to be on the line, and a student may freeze up with the equivalent of stage fright.

I'd also say there's a whole cultural mindset as well as psychological implications for the testing effect. People may be under pressure from their cultures and families to do well in school, so they are extra motivated to study so they can do well on tests. Their motivation may be fear-based as much as reward based, in some instances. Sometimes this backfires and results in extreme test anxiety, though.

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