Pedagogical Implications of the Testing Effect, Working Memory

I wrote the following for an assignment in IDS 6504: Adult Learning, instructed by Dr. Kay Allen. I chose the testing effect and cognitive load theory because of my interest in these constructs and their pedagogical importance.

IDS 6504 Assignment 6
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida
March 8, 2017

1. Theory and Construct – Cognitive Information Processing – The Testing Effect

2. First Implication for Instruction – Testing learners’ ability to recall (“retrieval practice”) improves learning and assessment outcomes by strengthening both retrieval ability and knowledge encoding.

3. Question – When should teachers and trainers implement retrieval practice to engage the testing effect?

4. Answer – My claim that the testing effect may even improve knowledge encoding sounds audacious to the uninitiated, but is being borne out by recent research—Karpicke and Blunt (2011), in a statement that sounds more like synaptic pruning than an educational phenomenon, propose that “retrieval practice may improve cue diagnosticity by restricting the set of candidates specified by a cue to be included in the search set” (p. 774). That is to say, the testing effect is not so much increasing the number of encoded features, but rather improving the lucidity of the existing encoded features, somewhat like tracing over a pencil sketch in pen. For closed-book assessments, retrieval practice has been shown to be much more effective than repeated study of learning materials, if the exam is given some time after the last study session (in Roediger & Karpicke, 2006, the testing effect was apparent two days and a week later, but not five minutes later). Teachers and trainers should augment their lessons with retrieval practice activities early and often, even for complex materials (Karpicke & Aue, 2015). Simply re-reading a textbook is not enough. Even teachers who implement elaborative learning activities are leaving a great deal of potential learning gains on the table if they do not engage the testing effect through retrieval practice (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). One of the few times where retrieval practice may not be useful is immediately before an exam (i.e., the five-minute condition in Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Giving yourself flashcard quizzes while waiting for the exams to be passed out is probably not very useful, perhaps because there simply is not enough time for the testing effect to incubate at this point.

5. References

Karpicke, J. D., & Aue, W. R. (2015). The testing effect is alive and well with complex materials. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 317–326.

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772–775.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.

6. Specific Application – One specific application, employed by Dr. Kay Allen at the University of Central Florida in such courses as EDF 6259: Learning Theories Applied to Instruction and Classroom Management, and IDS 6504: Adult Learning, is to give learners multiple-choice quizzes during lectures. This retrieval practice may aid long-term retention and retrieval ability, particularly for learners who read the textbook, modules, or other supporting materials prior to attending the lecture or web conference.

7. Theory and Construct – Cognitive Load Theory – Working Memory and Cognitive Efficiency

8. Second Implication for Instruction – Instruction should be designed to accommodate the learner’s working memory capacity by reducing or eliminating the need to hold information in working memory unnecessarily. This is just one step toward designing instruction with cognitive efficiency in mind.

9. Question – How should instructional designers account for working memory capacity in multimedia learning?

10. Answer – Multimedia learning activities should be designed to avoid cognitive overload for the target audience (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). If the target audience is learners who are already experts in the field of study at hand, obviously, learning activities that produce substantial cognitive overload for novices might become viable. Cognitive efficiency, or “qualitative increases in knowledge gained in relation to the time and effort invested in knowledge acquisition” (Hoffman, 2012, p., 133), is arguably a worthy consideration—the time and resources available to learners and instructors are perennially constrained. Instruction that exceeds the learner’s working memory capacity most commonly results in cognitive inefficiency, not unlike a computer running out of random-access memory and being forced to “swap” information to the hard disk which is one one-thousandth as efficient. Therefore, instructional designers should not only consider their target audience(s), but develop their multimedia materials with good pedagogy that transcends the target audience. For example, expecting learners to memorize a lengthy number or sentence and then enter this information on a different screen is neither appropriate for novices nor experts (except, in the rare case that the instructional goal is short-term retrieval practice). Instead, the learning activity should be designed so the learner can simultaneously view this information while entering it into a different area or application. In a similar vein, multimedia learning should employ techniques such as segmenting, pretraining, signaling, and weeding to avoid extraneous cognitive load and optimize learning-relevant cognitive load (Mayer & Moreno, 2003), thereby avoiding cognitive or working-memory overload and improving cognitive efficiency.

11. References

Hoffman, B. (2012). Cognitive efficiency: A conceptual and methodological comparison. Learning and Instruction, 22, 133–144.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43–52.

12. Specific Application – If you are designing multimedia training that requires interacting with external computer programs, it is not appropriate for this training to take up the entire computer monitor. The training window should be capable of being resized to a smaller size by the learner, so that he or she can avoid unnecessary working memory usage and avoid the split-attention effect by being able to position other computer program windows next to the training window (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Similarly, within the multimedia training, such situations should be avoided. For a specific application, in IBM’s Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), there are many instances where it is impossible to access certain information about the data-set at hand without closing a statistical options menu or dialog box. This phenomenon occurs even when accessing certain information about the data-set is essential to the task at hand in an options menu or dialog box. This is a prime example of poor design that fails to consider cognitive load theory, working memory, or efficiency of any kind besides the convenience of the programmers and developers of the software or training at hand.

13. Specific Application – Supplement – If the prior application is difficult to understand, here is an easy example: you have received a voicemail on your smartphone where the caller has spoken a call-back number that is different from his or her caller ID number. However, without some external tool such as a pen and paper, it is impossible to record this phone number in your phone while listening to it. Consequently, you are forced to hold the number in working memory if an external recording device such as a pen and paper is unavailable, and then enter it into your contacts or dialing app. If you are familiar with the area code, remembering seven numbers is an easy task, but if the area code is unfamiliar, attempting to hold 10 numbers in working memory may easily exceed your working memory capacity. Regardless, from a design standpoint, this is a poorly designed and needlessly inefficient situation.

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