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Fostering retention with multiple-choice tests

Testing is necessary, but what if your exams could be designed to promote retention and learning? In most cases, teachers use exams to assess how much a student has learned. In this post, we summarize how testing not only demonstrates what students know but also can help them to learn.

A paper published by UCLA researchers (Jeri Little and Elizabeth Bjork) explored how retrieval during testing modifies memory to improve future recall and retention. A key takeaway is that instructors should design quality exams and study guides with highly competitive distractors for students to think about alternatives.

GradeHub multiple-choice answer sheet

“Taking a test often does more than assess knowledge; tests can also provide opportunities for learning.” Multiple-choice tests not only improve retention on the same questions, but also improve one’s ability to recall nontested, but related information on a later test—provided that the initial test utilizes incorrect alternatives that are competitive. Furthermore, although an MC question is often easier to answer than a comparable question in open response (e.g., fill in the blank or short answer), to the extent that the question has competitive alternatives, that question may invoke processes that are similar to those involved in recall (e.g., memory search, retrieval checks), thus leading to comparable benefits to the tested information.

Figure from Multiple-choice testing can improve the retention of nontested related information

This research has implications for both students and instructors. Instructors can use quizzes or provide study guides to improve retention. Students should feel confident that going over related questions is a great way to study for an upcoming exam and helps retention. For students, when using multiple-choice questions for exam prep, they should think carefully about “all of the alternatives – not only why a question is correct but also why others are wrong.”

Little, Jeri L, and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork. “Multiple-Choice Testing Can Improve the Retention of Nontested Related Information.”

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