Context: In education, tests are primarily used for assessment, thus permitting teachers to assess the efficacy of their curriculum and to assign grades. However, research in cognitive psychology has shown that tests can also directly affect learning by promoting better retention of information, a phenomenon known as the testing effect.
Cognitive psychology research: Cognitive psychology laboratory studies show that repeated testing of information produces superior retention relative to repeated study, especially when testing is spaced out over time. Tests that require effortful retrieval of information, such as short-answer tests, promote better retention than tests that require recognition, such as multiple-choice tests. The mnemonic benefits of testing are further enhanced by feedback, which helps students to correct errors and confirm correct answers.
Application to medical education: Medical educational research has focused extensively on assessment issues. Such assessment research permits the conclusion that clinical expertise is founded on a broad fund of knowledge and effective memory networks that allow easy access to that knowledge. Test-enhanced learning can potentially strengthen clinical knowledge that will lead to improved expertise.
Conclusions: Tests should be given often and spaced out in time to promote better retention of information. Questions that require effortful recall produce the greatest gains in memory. Feedback is crucial to learning from tests. Test-enhanced learning may be an effective tool for medical educators to use in promoting retention of clinical knowledge.