Attention adult learners – skipping tests diminishes retention

If you react in a visceral way (queasy stomach, rapid heart rate, sweaty palms) when you find out you have to take a test during safety training or any other professional course, you are not alone. Adult learners often experience test anxiety.

However, you can relax knowing that you are likely to retain more – and be safer in the workplace – if you take a series of tests on the material.

Research shows that college students who read material and take a “pre-test” test on it consistently perform better on subsequent tests than those who simply re-read the content before testing. Variations on this design have been widely used, and the results repeatedly support the value of testing for improved retention in young adults.

But what about older folks?

According to Taking the Testing Effect Beyond the College Freshman: Benefits for Lifelong Learning, a new study published by the American Psychological Association, adults age 55 to 65 who haven’t been in school for a while are as capable of learning from tests as younger adults.

In the study, older learners who took a final test on the same day as the study period did significantly better than participants who took it two days later. However, older adults whose memories presumably are not as good as that of college students still showed improved memory for previously tested material compared to restudied material, even after the two-day delay.

Researchers believe that testing results in increased retention because people are practicing information retrieval. When adults encode associations between items, they are also encoding the process to retrieve those items. Testing provides practice in activating these retrievals whereas “studying and restudying” do not.

This line of research shows the importance of including tests in online and classroom training. Well-trained employees who have been tested on what they learned are much more likely to respond correctly when confronted by hazardous or stressful conditions. That’s why we feel it is so important to include knowledge checks in our learning material.

I will discuss testing and other aspects of adult learning this Thursday, March 14, from noon to 1 p.m. Central time during a free webinar. I hope you will join me for the session, when I will bust some adult learning myths and offer recommendations to help your employees leverage their knowledge in the workplace.

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