With great freedom comes great invisibility — especially when it comes to online education programs, which leave the pace and degree of learning entirely up to the user, with no guarantee to the instructor that anyone is actually paying attention, let alone absorbing the information that’s being presented.
But that could change, thanks to a recent study by a team of Harvard University researchers that suggests a simple way to help people process and retain online content: quizzes. The researchers found that students who completed a short test every five minutes during a 21-minute video lecture had an observably better learning experience than students who weren’t tested. “Taken together,” the researchers write, “the present results demonstrate … testing can help students to quickly and efficiently extract lecture content by reducing the occurrence of mind wandering, increasing the frequency of note taking, and facilitating learning.”
Published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), the study specifically looked at online learning in a classroom setting, but according to lead author Karl Szupnar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard, the findings are potentially applicable to any sort of education delivered remotely — including professional-development coursework. “When you get into the world of online learning,” Szupnar said, “it’s really up to the student to stay focused.”
Why does testing help alleviate that? For a few reasons. In most courses, tests are infrequent — usually administered just once or twice during a course. “Students think, ‘I’m not responsible for this for another month. If I don’t pay attention, I can get to it later,’” Szupnar said. “But if you put people on the hook and make them responsible for it every little while, they actually start paying more attention.”
Plus, students themselves seem to prefer it. “At the end of the lectures,” Szupnar, “students said [being tested every five minutes] was easier than not having been tested in terms of how easy it was to get through the class.”
Probably that has something to do with the students being more actively involved in the mechanics of retention — a process that cognitive psychologists have been studying for the last 10 years, Szupnar said. “When you ask students how they study,” he said, “they always say they read through the information, then they read it again and they read it again. I assume that’s how it works with online videos.”
Retrieving information, on the other hand, “is a much better study strategy than reading over or reviewing some thing,” he said. “When you’re retrieving it, you’re engaging the same mental processes that you’re going to use later when you retrieve it [during a final exam, for example]…. If you’ve practiced retrieving it, you’re going to be much better off in the future. Even with online videos, if you have people retrieve information right after the lecture, that’s better than nothing. It’s probably better to do it throughout the video, but any practice in retrieving information is going to help you in the long run.”