The 40/60 Concept

Last month, I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on the testing effect with about fifteen faculty who, much to my pleasure, were willing to participate in the testing effect cycle over the course of a month. One of the data points from the workshop that the faculty found most helpful, however, is the 40/60 ratio of reviewing to testing. In other words, for every hour of studying, twenty-four minutes should be spent reviewing the information and thirty-six being tested on the information.

But let’s consider the implications. Most students study by reading notes, highlighting important text, re-reading notes/lectures/PowerPoints, etc. Some will create flash cards. The truth is that finding students using testing strategies is rather surprising. So, the onus is on the instructor to train students how to learn.

It’s a task that comes with a lot of emotional baggage. Here’s why. Testing doesn’t immediately boost confidence. In the famous Roediger and Karpicke study of 2006, students were divided into three groups, and each group prepared differently for a final test. The first group simply reviewed material in preparation for the test; the second reviewed three times and tested once prior to the test; the third reviewed once and tested themselves three times prior to the test. By “reviewed,” I mean they read their notes, and by “tested,” I mean they took tests that differed from the final but made the students answer from memory and provided quick feedback. You can guess that the students who read once and tested three times prior to the final test scored the highest—by nearly twice as much. Here’s the problem: the third group felt the least confident when going into the final test, whereas the first group felt the most confident.

“Where ignorance is bliss, Tis folly to be wise.” Thank you, Thomas Gray, for describing so long ago what educational research is now finding.

Part of the remedy, however, may lie in the way instructors present testing options. Two thoughts. The first is that we have to emphasize low-stakes testing where students can learn by and from mistakes. Secondly, it’s not good enough to say, “Y’all need to test yourself on material more often than you review the material.” We have to give students ideas on how to create tests and then verify their efforts. Once they get the concept, the types of testing are virtually endless. Nevertheless, I’ll provide a couple of examples that are subject to the context of the learning environment and objectives:

  1. Creating flash cards. Care must be taken here to inform students that reading over their flash cards is not the same as testing themselves using flash cards. Apps like Quizlet and Anki offer randomized testing with structured delays between testing.
  2. Illustrating an idea. Instead of using words, use pictures. Close the book, draw as much from memory as possible, and then see how well you’ve done (“If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?” Anyone name this 70s soft rock band from LA?)
  3. Outlining processes.
  4. Labeling and diagramming models. A particularly great exercise that enables learners to visualize ideas.
  5. Listing data information. Bullet points, mind maps, a memory palace.
  6. After a period of review, write from memory as much of the information as one can recall without looking for help during the retrieval process. Taking 15-25 minutes to recall as much of the information given in a lecture, demonstration, lab, etc. may sound like the ultimate buzz kill, but it has some of the greatest potential to move information from short term to long term.
  7. Summarizing information.
  8. Organizing structured content.

All have to be done from memory and then checked. If these options sound like efforts in embracing failure, you’re right. They’re exercises, however, that emphasize learning as opposed to perfection. Should you need inspirational quotes to get students excited about embracing failure, here are two that I often remember. Michael Jordan soberly estimates the following:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

And Thomas Edison regarding that bright, shining object on your desk:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

We learn best when we learn to value failure.

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