Check Your Knowledge or Forget Your Knowledge

If you walk into any library or college campus around exam time, you’ll likely see many people studying hard—but very few will be studying effectively!  

The most common method of studying involves rereading notes and textbooks, perhaps while underlining or highlighting key points. This might help when you have a test coming up right away. But if you want to still remember things a week later, or months later, this is NOT the best way to study!   

In a previous article, we mentioned that one of the benefits of eLearning is that it typically involves frequent retrieval practiceWhen a learner is prompted to actively retrieve information from their memory, they’ll remember it way better than if they just passively reread the information over and over. 

When we design eLearning, we give learners multiple opportunities to practice retrieving information from memory, often in the form of “Knowledge Checks”—regular interactions that often take on the appearance of a quiz question. However, they appear throughout the course, separate from the quizzes or tests you might find at the end of a module or course.  

For best results, follow these recommendations: 

1. Don’t keep score

Another benefit of eLearning is psychological safety. Greater privacy and autonomy means that learners can feel free to explore, review concepts they aren’t sure about, and attempt to answer questions, without the fear of failure or judgement.  

If you choose to track the results of Knowledge Checks and report learners’ individual scores, you’re adding some of that negative evaluative pressure back in. This can hurt learners’ motivation and even encourage cheating. Instead, why not promote self-directed learningby encouraging learners to take risks and gain awareness of what they do and do not know? 

2. Do provide feedback

One concern with multiple choice questions is that if learners get practice questions wrong, they will remember the wrong answer. This could occur if the learner chooses a “distractor”—an answer that is close to the correct answer, but not quite right. However, this risk is easily managed by providing feedback that includes the correct answerGiving feedback for right answers as well as wrong ones ensures that the content is reinforced, even if a learner was just guessing. Providing learners with additional opportunities to answer the question correctly will go even further in reinforcing the correct information.  

3. Do create the right amount of challenge 

We want learners to feel successful as they complete these Knowledge Checks. Thinking about and answering questions can give learners a sense of progress. If the questions are too hard, learners may get discouraged. But if they’re too easy, learners won’t get the benefits that come from working to recall the information. They could also overestimate their abilities and be caught off guard by a difficult final test.  

Bonus: 

Being able to remember what you’ve learned in a course is useless if you are unable to apply that knowledge in real life situations! Application-based questions improve learners’ ability to transfer their learning to different scenarios and situations. For example, consider the difference between these two first aid questions. Which do you think will be more effective in preparing learners for a workplace emergency?  

  • A: Drag and drop these primary survey steps into the correct order.
  • B: You have a question for your manager, so you knock on their office door. There’s no response, which seems odd. When you push the door open, you find them slumped over their desk. What are you going to do first? Select the best answer. 

If you picked “B,” you’re right! This question requires learners to recall what they have learned (the steps in a primary survey) and to apply it to a realistic scenarioEven multiple-choice questions can be used to promote critical thinking skills by asking learners to use their judgement and select the “best” course of action.

Retrieval practice—actively recalling information from your memory—is the most effective way to retain information long-term. Knowledge Checks are a great way to prompt active recall.  

Here are a few for you! 

  1. Is the following statement true or false? Tracking and reporting individual learners’ Knowledge Check results will motivate them to try harder.
  2. What can you do to reduce the risk of having learners remember an incorrect answer, instead of the correct option? Select one or more options.
    • A: Provide feedback that includes the correct answer. 
    • B: Make the Knowledge Checks really easy so that they always get them right.
    • C: Give learners multiple opportunities to answer the question correctly.  
  3. A colleague has asked you to review some potential Knowledge Check questions and they seem really easy. What should you say, when asked for your opinion? Select the best option.
    • A: These questions will be perfect for boosting learners’ self-esteem!
    • B: Let’s make these questions a little more challenging. If more thinking is required, they’ll remember the information better later.
    • C: These questions are way too easy! We need to crank up the difficulty level to scare them into studying extra hard for the final exam. 

Feedback:  

  1. FALSE. Tracking and reporting individual learners’ Knowledge Check results can harm their motivation, discourage exploration and taking risks, and may even encourage cheating. 
  2. A and C. To reduce the risk of having learners remember an incorrect answer, instead of the correct option, provide feedback that includes the correct response (like we’re doing right now!) and consider presenting the question again at a later time. Choosing the correct answer for themselves can be even more beneficial than just reading the correct answer.
  3. B. The best response is to suggest making the questions a little more challenging, so that the learners will work harder to remember the information. Knowledge Checks shouldn’t be too difficult though, as that can be discouraging. 

Did you notice that this final question also included application in an authentic workplace scenario? That’s the piece that can really take questions to the next level for learning!

Further reading

Putnam, A. L., Nestojko, J. F., & Roediger III, H. L. (2016). Improving student learning: Two strategies to make it stick. In From the Laboratory to the Classroom (pp. 106-133). Routledge. 

Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2018). Reflections on the Resurgence of Interest in the Testing Effect. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 236-241.