Unfair Tests and Natural Learning

A recent New York Times Magazine article (“Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing,” Sep. 4, 2014) describes a fascinating line of research by Robert Bjork, Nicolas Soderstrom, and their colleagues at UCLA. The gist is this: Taking a test on material that you are not familiar with turns out to help you learn more effectively than if you had spent the same amount of time studying the material in a conventional way. (In the studies, subjects either took a test and then studied, or just studied for the equivalent amount of time, then took a different test.)

If that doesn’t seem totally surprising, consider that this effect holds even–in fact, especially–when you know nothing about the material on the test–that is, when you can do no better than random chance in answering questions about it.

This result definitely merits the attention of instructional designers. Generally speaking, making someone answer challenging questions with no prior knowledge of the subject matter would be viewed as educational malpractice in most ID circles. Conventional wisdom would say, “it’s not fair to ask learners to attempt something they cannot hope to succeed at, and demoralization and frustration are bound to result if you do.”

Why, then, does it seem to work so well? The primary hypothesis given by Soderstrom and Bjork is that taking the test may “prime” the brain in some way so it can learn the material covered by the test more efficiently. This is logical, but also somewhat mysterious. Why does wrongly answering a question that I didn’t understand “prime” my brain?

The answer seems clearer if you forget about the classroom world of “tests” and “studying” for a moment, and think about learning in the real world. A well-known aphorism says that “experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards” (attributed to Vernon Law, a professional baseball player also responsible for “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.”) In other words, real life always works this way. You routinely find yourself in situations in which you don’t know–or are wrong about–what’s going to happen, and you learn how to do a better job only after you’ve experienced this failure.

There is no mystery about why this is so. Until reality diverges from what you expected, there is no way of knowing what you need to learn. In a world without teachers and textbooks, the failures are the lessons. It is thus perfectly clear why failure “primes” learning: Failed expectations highlight what we don’t know, and trigger the brain’s learning mechanisms to try to figure it out.

So what does this suggest about effective instructional design? Many people have focused on the obvious conclusion that we should be giving tests at the start of training. While that’s not the worst idea in the world, I think it misses the real lesson here, which isn’t about tests at all. Our brains are designed to start from an expectation failure and work to a lesson learned. The cause of the expectation failure does not have to be a “test.” It can be a role play, scenario, simulation, or even in the real world. The real lesson is: let lessons follow failures, as nature intended.

2 thoughts on “Unfair Tests and Natural Learning

  1. I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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