Friday, February 8, 2019
In my last post, I argued that banning all external sources of learning, so-called “supplements,” undermines students’ crucial use of self-regulated learning and decreases students’ perceived autonomy support. This, in turn, weakens learning. This time around, I will discuss how blanket bans on external sources deprive students of one of the most powerful tools in a learner’s arsenal: “The Testing Effect.”
Legal education as a whole seems to treat testing as a tool strictly for use in formative and summative assessment. If we want students to “see where they are at” during the semester, we use testing. If we want to give students a grade, we use testing. So conceived, testing serves only to assess and not much else; it serves to evaluate learning and not to create knowledge, per se. In 2006, Roediger & Karpicke noted that although this view is patently wrong, it nonetheless pervades many areas of education.
But scores of studies show that testing is one of the best ways to construct, comprehend, and retain knowledge. Since as far back as 1909, scholars have demonstrated the superiority of testing over “restudying,” and empirical inquiry into this phenomenon has flourished in the last 15 years. For instance, in 2007, McDaniel and colleagues found that both short answer and multiple choice quizzes significantly enhanced learning to a greater degree than additional reading, even though the quizzes did not directly target the exact material tested on the final assessment.
Moreover, in a 2010 study, Buttler concluded that the testing effect enhanced performance even on subsequent tests where “transfer” was necessary. In other words, the assessment test required students to apply their learned knowledge to unfamiliar contexts. This finding is thus particularly relevant to the study of law, where students must learn to analogize the facts of one case to a new fact pattern.
Perhaps the skeptic might say: “Fine. Testing is learning. But, law professors do not have the time to write, grade, and give feedback on so many tests.” Quite true, but I am not advocating for a regime in which law professors provide the testing. The theme of my scholarship is that we should empower students to teach themselves and not let students outsource the responsibility of learning to us. (I would even argue that self-testing is more optimal given its necessary attachment to metacognition and self-regulated learning.) Luckily, it just so happens that the testing effect is a stronger learning tool than re-study even if self-provided and even if it lacks feedback. In other words, even though faculty provision of the testing is beneficial and enhances the testing effect, professors need not be involved in the process necessarily.
That brings us to the topic of banning outside sources of learning. If we want to heed the extensive empirical evidence of the superiority of the testing effect, but we are unable to provide students with the essential resources, blanket bans on outside materials necessarily deprive students of the testing effect. Students are then left with the sole recourse of re-reading notes and outlines, which all available evidence shows is a substantially less effective learning method. We are therefore actively undermining student learning and sending a normative message about how future study (such as bar exam preparation) should be carried out.
As a result of all this, I suggest that faculty point students in the direction of quality self-testing resources while steering them away from sources that lack quality. I will take up the problem of resource quality in my next post which will also discuss counterarguments to my claim that faculty should not enact blanket bans on outside sources of learning.