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Have you ever been frustrated your trainees didn’t remember what you taught them a few months later? One of the most surprising things I’ve ever learned is that taking a quiz or test doesn’t just measure your learning, but actually increases retention and reduces forgetting. Answering questions doesn’t just track what you know, it gives you retrieval practice, which makes it more likely that you will retain the information and be able to retrieve it again.

In this series on the business benefits of online assessments in regulatory compliance, I’ve covered the value of assessments in “testing out” of training and in ensuring your workforce understand. This post shares how assessments aid retention.

If you include SAP Assessment Management by Questionmark quizzes and tests within your compliance programme, it is more likely that your workforce will remember what they learned and be able to retrieve it at crucial times.

Retrieval practice

There’s a famous joke about the value of studying:

“Why study? The more you study, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So, why study?”

There’s a kernel of truth to this joke, but the key fact is that a person’s ability to retrieve information can be described as:

Retrieval = Learning minus Forgetting

We often focus on climbing the learning curve, but it’s just as important to reduce forgetting. When you learn something, you want to be able to retrieve it a later date, but very often a typical learning curve will be like in the example below, with a rapid drop off of learning after the learning experience is over.

An effective way to reduce forgetting is to give retrieval practice. You can think of the brain a bit like a forest, and when your brain answers a question, it makes a path through that forest which is easier to pass through a second time.  There is powerful evidence from psychological research that practicing retrieval, including by taking quizzes and tests, makes it much more likely that you can retrieve it again. Essentially by including questions during and after the learning, you can reduce the forgetting curve.

How do we know this?

There is a huge volume of evidence in psychological research that retrieval practice and testing is effective in preventing forgetting.  To quote a prestigious 2013 paper by Professor John Dunlosky of Kent State University and others in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest:

“… more than 100 years of research has yielded several hundred experiments showing that practice testing enhances learning and retention ... we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals”

Or to quote Professor Roddy Roediger who has led much of the recent research:

“Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.”

If you are interested in learning more about the research, a good place to start is this SlideShare presentation. It is a fact that if we want to retain something for the long term, and not forget it, practicing retrieval by answering questions on it is the best way to do it.

How to use assessments effectively for retrieval practice

Here are ten practical tips for using assessments in a system like SAP Assessment Management by Questionmark effectively as retrieval practice to aid retention:

  1. Follow up training by setting quizzes and tests on knowledge and information that you want people to remember and that matter for the business.
  2. Open ended questions (short answer, fill in the blank etc) give the best retrieval practice as they don’t prompt for the answer.
  3. Multiple choice questions also work, but it’s important to give feedback if learners are wrong to avoid reinforcing an incorrect understanding.
  4. Although the effect works most obviously for factual knowledge, it also applies to skills and concepts.
  5. It’s effective to repeat quizzes and tests to allow multiple opportunities for retrieval practice
  6. It’s effective to space out these repetitions over time, for example over days, weeks or months. This gives a greater retention effect.
  7. Consider using mobile assessments on smartphones or tablets to give easy and spaced repetition.
  8. Discourage peaking ahead to look at the right answer – the retention benefit comes from trying to answer the question.
  9. Don’t make the questions too easy, the strongest benefit comes from effortful retrieval.
  10. Although you can get the benefits of retrieval practice in other ways, the advantage of computerized assessments is that they are automated and so encourage or require learners to practice retrieving.

Summary of business benefits
There are many familiar benefits of quizzes, tests and exams to aid learning. Assessments:

  • measure learning and tell you how much your employees know
  • motivate and encourage employees to learn
  • give feedback to employees to correct misconceptions and direct learning
  • give feedback to instructors telling them where to direct learning

However one critical and often overlooked benefit is that

  • Assessments reduce the forgetting curve by giving retrieval practice. If you assess your employees, they are more likely to retain information for the long term and retrieve it when needed for a crucial business purpose.

If you find that you train people and they don’t retain the information, assessments delivered by systems like SAP Assessment Management by Questionmark can make abig difference.

You can see the 4th post in this series on how assessments can reduce human error here.

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