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Testing Whether Information Is in Long-Term Storage

Testing Whether Information

Is in Long-Term Storage

Information that the learner processes during a lesson remains in working memory where it eventually will be dropped out or saved for long-term storage. Just because students act as if they have learned the new information or skill doesn’t mean it will be transferred to long-term storage. Extensive research on retention indicates that 70 to 90 percent of new learning is forgotten within 18 to 24 hours after the lesson. Consequently, if the new learning survives this time intact, it is probably destined for long-term storage and will not deteriorate further.

This time requirement confirms that the processing and transfer between working memory and long-term storage needs adequate time for the encoding and consolidation of the new information into the storage networks. Thus, tomorrow is the earliest reliable time we can confirm that what was learned today has been indeed retained.

How to Test. If teachers want to test whether information actually has been transferred to long- term storage, the test needs to

• be given no sooner than 24 hours after the learning;

• test precisely what should have been retained; and

• come as a surprise to the learner, with no warning or preparation time.

Rationale. If the learners have warning about the test, they are likely to review the material just before the test. In this case, the test may determine the amount of information the learners were able to cram and hold in working memory and not what they have recalled from long-term storage. While testing without warning may seem insensitive, it is the only way teachers can be sure that long-term storage was the source of the test information that the learners provided. Unannounced quizzes, then, should help students assess what they have remembered, rather than be a classroom management device to get students back on task.

Misuse of Tests. Some teachers use unannounced tests as punishment to get students back on task. This is a misuse of a valuable tool. Another approach is for teachers to

• establish sense and meaning to increase the probability that retention will occur;

• explain to students that unannounced tests help them see what as well as how much they have retained and learned over a given period; and

• ensure that the test or quiz matches the rehearsal when it was first taught. If the learning required essentially rote rehearsal, give a rote type of test. If it required elaborate rehearsal, use a test that allows the students more flexibility in their responses.

Using the Test Results. It is important that teachers

analyze immediately the results of the test to determine what areas need to be retaught or practiced. If some students forgot parts, consider forming cooperative learning groups that focus on reteaching the forgotten areas.

record the grades of only a small portion of these unannounced assessments. Rather, ask students to share their results and discuss in a think-pair-share format what strategies the students used to remember their correct responses. In this way, students talk about  their memory processes and have a better understanding of how they learn and remember.

decide whether memory strategies such as concept maps, mnemonics, or chunking (see the following chapters) can help in retention.

The analysis might also reveal areas of the curriculum to be reworked or updated for relevance, or it might show that the lesson should be retaught in a different way. A task analysis on a failed lesson is a good way to detect false assumptions about learning that the teacher may have made, and it recasts the lesson into a new presentation that can be more successful for both students and teacher.

Using tests as tools to help students to be right, rather than to catch them being wrong, will create a supportive learning climate that results in improved student performance.

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