Testing is a well-established “desirable difficulty.” As the authors of a recent article on the subject explain, testing students after an initial study phase implies an effortful retrieval that is missing from traditional note-taking, and that helps consolidate the newly acquired knowledge.
In addition, “a wealth of research clearly highlights that the benefits of learning tasks substantially depend on the fit between the learners’ level of knwoledge and the respective learning tasks” (all quotes are from the original article.” Yet, “testing is often implemented by having all learners answer the same pre-set sequence of specific test questions.” It is thus reasonable to expect that, although more effecrtive than passive note-taking, “testing in its usual form might be suboptimal, and that it would be more effective to provide learners with test questions that are adapted to their level of knowledge.”
One theory notably, called Region of Proximal Learning, holds that “learners benefit more from learning tasks whose complexity is just one step further from the content that has already been learned.” To the contrary, “both redudant processing (too easy lower-level learning tasks) and processing that cognitively overloads learners (too complex higher-level learning tasks) inhibit learning.”
To test the hypothesis that personalized formative assessments are more effective than traditional ones, although both surpass passive note-taking, the researchers assigned 187 German univerisyt students to one of these three conditions.
After a pretest assessing their familiarity with the topic, all participants watched the same 80mn e-lecture (narrated slides) on the psychology of social norms. Depending on the condition, they were then either given a formative assessment or asked to take note on the slides.
In the testing conditions, students were trained on different kinds of question, from easy “Level one” items simply asking to retrieve content such as definitions, to hard “Level four” items requiring them to analyze scenarios in the light of different social norms.
For instance, a “Level two” question was:
“Anja starts her first job as a teacher at a high school. At first, her senior students think she is a student too. Anja cannot blame them; after all, she is only 5’3, looks very young, and dresses casually.” Analyze the situation by taking into account your knowledge of the six factors which foster obedience. Justify your answers by providing short explanations.
In the “adaptive”, personalized condition, students had to evaluate their own response after each question by using a feeback form containing the correct answer broken down into idea units. This enabled the researchers to provide them with an “adapted” next question.
In the “non-adaptive” condition, students were simply given a pre-set sequence of questions of increasing complexity.
After one week, the participants from the three groups took a posttest, which confirmed the initial hypotheses: “adaptive” testing yielded higher learning outcomes that “non-adaptive” testing, although both groups outperformed students in the note-taking condition.
More precisely, the “adaptive” group performed better on easier questions, and as well on harder ones--despite the fact that the adaptation gave them less training on the latter.
Since the “non-adaptive” group scored the training questions as more cognitively demanding, the benefits of adaptation / personalization can reasonably be explained by the fact that it enabled students to make more efficient use of their mental resources. Because the questions matched their level of mastery, the extraneous cognitive load was diminished, and students “profited from the freed up capacity for the execution of beneficial learning processes.”
Reference: Heitmann, Grund, Berthold, Fries, and Roelle (2018), “Testing is more desirable when it is adaptive and still desirable when compared to note-taking”, Frontiers in Psychology.