Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing essay tests helps students learn? Do tell.

From the New York Times comes this late-breaking news: "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.":
Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
What helped most with retention of material was writing essay tests--"retrieval" exams that tested the amount of information students were able to recall when they wrote about the subject.

The researchers speculate that this effect occurs because the mind creates information storage systems as writing occurs, or something like that. The analogy that immediately sprang to mind for me was a medieval system of memory retrieval, although oddly enough the memory mapping techniques now taught in schools didn't result in better retention.

So now let me say that again, slowly:

Writing an essay about a subject helped students remember specific information.

Writing. Not shiny edu-gadgets beloved of administrators, although you all know I love gadgets.

Specific information. Not the touchy-feely "fluff" that budget-cutters apparently think the humanities teach.

Let's pair this information with the widely-reported study that Historiann posted about the other day, the one that's being reported in the news as "college students don't know nuthin' about nuthin'" but that, as she correctly notes, shows this:
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Could someone beyond an obscure pseudonymous blogger put this 2 + 2 together, please, and let the legislators know about it?


Dr. Koshary said...

Agreed — and, for what it's worth, I also was reminded of the medieval memory palace. And, thereby, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which introduced the concept to me way back when.

Historiann said...

Thanks for the link and commentary, undine. You ask, "Could someone beyond an obscure pseudonymous blogger put this 2 + 2 together, please, and let the legislators know about it?"

I don't think so. There are two barriers to this happening: 1) pencils and paper are not *shiny new digital technologies* that will get people excited in investing in them. 2) Although the technology isn't expensive, the labor required on the part of both students in studying and the professors/instructors in reading their tests is.

What most people think of as research in "education" is really a snipe hunt for a way to grow people's brains betterfastercheaper. But the fact is that education, when it works, still works the same way it has for centuries, if it has ever worked at all. But no one wants to hear that--they're sure they've got the miracle cure, or at least a convincing-enough bottle of snake oil they can sell the rubes and strike it rich.

undine said...

Thanks, Dr. Koshary, for the reference; I'll look at that book.

Historian, I think you're right. No one wants to hear that education still takes place in small batches, carefully tended, when "betterfastercheaper" is being touted by those with a financial interest at stake.

Anthea said...

Surprise,’s not as if we didn’t know that writing essays is the best way of actually learning content, analysing and remembering content!!’s not as if we didn’t already know that those in the liberal arts developed critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. But let’s be honest order for one to do really well in these areas one has to have a strong mastery of all of these skill sets. While I’d also agree with undine and Historiann that the administrators should be told I doubt that they’ll pay attention since full mastery of these skill sets inevitably requires small classes and relatively few technical expensive gadgets. Sadly the fact that these small classes aren’t big money makers that they won’t require expensive gadgets means administrators aren’t going to be happy. I just can’t see them relishing this proposal.

Anonymous said...

Tee hee...shiny gadgets. ;)

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