Research: Small, Frequent Tests Could Help Kids Pay Attention, Learn

New research is showing that the key to keeping students focused on learning material while in the classroom could be frequent tests, according to Cognitive psychologists, long charged with figuring out how to keep young minds from straying while learning, have hit upon an unusual solution of springing little tests and quizzes throughout the lecture — at the exact time that students are most likely to drift away from the “topic in hand.”

The issue of how to keep students’ noses to the grindstone has become even more serious since the introduction of online courses which many people think will be a fix to what ails the education system in in the U.S. and abroad. However, without teachers watching over the classroom in real time to keep kids from giving into temptation of the internet or distractions, designing programs that will be no worse at keeping children learning than real-life teachers would is tricky.

“We talk to students here who say, ‘It’s a great tool to have. But at the same time when I’m sitting at home and have the TV on and a laptop on another screen for an hour-long lecture, it will take me two, three, four hours to get through it,’ ” said Karl Szpunar, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard University.

One remedy, according to a study led by Szpunar, may be to sprinkle tests and quizzes throughout a lecture. Szpunar and colleagues found in the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that interspersing videotaped lectures with quizzes improved students’ ability to stay focused, take relevant notes, and learn material.

The experiments involved 80 students divided into two groups who were asked to watch a 20-minute video covering the basics of statistics. The first group were given supporting materials and told that they would get periods of time to review them. Furthermore, they were also warned that they would either be asked questions towards the end of the lesson or asked to answer additional math problems.

Students who kept up with the materials during the lecture by using information given out in addition to the lecture performed better in the end on both exams and math problems than their peers who did not.

In a second experiment, the researchers tried to discern whether merely re-exposing the students to the course material would be a way to get the same effect. So they added a group that had a two-minute review session, receiving possible test questions and the answers. Again, they found that those who were actually tested did the best and reported less mind wandering.

It seems obvious from the experiment that we’re not quite at a point where we can rely on students to be completely self-directed when it came to their education. The Harvard University study believes that more oversight via problem sets or quizzes could go a long way to making students pay attention to their academic work and absorb more of the material.

04 8, 2013