Harvard researchers: frequent tests increase retention in online learning

(Elearningindustry, 13th April 2013) It's easy to get distracted - especially when you're in the midst of an online training coursethat shows no signs of ending. While most of us can agree on the utility of web-delivered training, we must also face the reality that even the most well-intentioned of learners, when left to their own devices, can be distracted by a sudden beep on their tablet or a buzz of their smartphone.

Studies have shown the distractions can be disastrous to concentration: Michigan State researchers found that interruptions as short as 2.8 seconds can double the rate of errors in a sequence-based task. The question then falls to us:


What Is The Best Way To Keep The Learner's Head In The Game And Out Of Their Email?

A pair of researchers at Harvard University think they've got part of the answer. In a study run by Daniel Schacter, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology, and Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, they found that interspersing short quizzes into online learning course can dramatically increase student retention of material.  The findings were published in an April issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a series of two studies, Schacter and Szpunar split a twenty-minute lecture into four five-minute segments.

Some research subjects were presented with math problems after each segment while others were not. In the end, all subjects were tested on the material of the lecture.  The subjects who quizzed in between segments scored higher than all other groups, even outperforming the group that was allowed to review the material from the lecture. (For a more thorough write-up of the methodology, visit the Harvard Gazette website (Online learning: It’s different) or view the PNAS paper (Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures)



Based on this finding, Schacter believes that quizzes to keep learners' minds engaged are the most important component of effective online learning. "It's not sufficient for a lecture to be short or to break up a lecture as we did in these experiments," Schacter told "You need to have the testing.”  (Science News - Online Learning: It's Different) “Just breaking it up and allowing them to do something else, even allowing them to re-study the material, does nothing to cut down on mind-wandering, and does nothing to improve finaltest performance,” Schacter continued. “The testing is the critical component."

With the proliferation of online learning programs, many professionals believe much more research needs to be done into what makes online learning effective. The push to move coursework online has been strong -- led by Lynda, Coursera, and Udacity, investments in educational technology companies surpassed $1 billion in 2012, while universities across the country are scrambling to bring on e-learning specialists. However, organizations big and small struggle with the problem of helping their learners retain the information presented in online training. With many corporate trainings little more than a jazzed-up PowerPoints, the lack of effectiveness can offset any financial benefits achieved by a more scalable online solution. Finding a way to increase engagement with online content could dramatically increase information retention -- and likely provide a huge benefit to the bottom line for businesses and academic institutions alike. Based on this research, it looks like adding in a few extra quizzes is an excellent place to start.