“Self-testing is the most effective method to fight forgetting”

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TTK’s researchers refute the effectiveness of learning strategies widely approved and applied for centuries in their retrieval-based studies.

“A test is not the final checkpoint of learning but rather learning itself. Self-testing and tests to evaluate information learned are not formidable assessments, they are effective methods to acquire long term and integrated knowledge. We just find it hard to believe in them,” Mihály Racsmány, associate professor of the Department of Cognitive Science at BME’s Faculty of Natural Sciences (TTK) and head of the Hungarian Brain Research Program (NAP) of MTA-BME said in summarizing the results of the latest experimental memory studies related to remembering and retrieving of memories. In his research, he analyses the psychological and neurological implications of the so-called testing effect, which he says is “not the methodology of the one-night cramming practice”.

In 2012, the Hungarian government initiated the establishment of the Hungarian Brain Research Program (NAP) which was designed to promote discovery research, prevention and innovation and to enhance medical care through the improvement of drug development. Tamás Freund, the director of MTA’s Research Institute of Experimental Medicine was appointed project leader. This large-scale initiative was launched a few months ahead of similar European Union and American endeavours. In the four-year cycle that ended in late 2017, 89 laboratories received grants and 48 research institutes and university departments gained access to modern instruments from a total of HUF 12 billion of public funds.

The program is unique in the sense that it unites the principles of competition and collaboration by encouraging the most eminent researchers, laboratories and research programmes to cooperate with each other and at international level.

The government has decided to continue the programme: the initiative NAP 2.0 will be implemented between December 1 2017 and November 30 2021 receiving total funding of nearly HUF 6.5 billion. The extended program is aimed at consolidating the existing network and promoting the more efficient use of cooperation opportunities.

Mihály Racsmány’s research group (Learning & memory research group) is supported by the Hungarian Brain Research Program (NAP 2.0.  2017-1-2-1 NKP-2017 00002). The researchers are examining damage to memory functions and their treatment options in neurological and psychiatric disorders. Certain developmental and neurodegenerative disorders affect cognitive functions, the motor system and affectivity. These disorders can have a lifelong impact on efficient work, social adaptation, independent living and place a burden on the patient’s immediate environment and the health care system. Therefore, the research group uses neural (fMRI, EEG), physiological (eye movement registration) and experimental psychological methods to explore the mechanisms of learning strategies based on memory retrieval, their application potential in educational settings and the forms of their manifestation in neurological and psychiatric diseases (obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, spectrum disorder, Parkinson’s disease).

The members of the research group are:

Mihály Racsmány, head of the research group, associate professor of the Department of Cognitive Science at BME’s Faculty of Natural Sciences (TTK). Other members from the department include: Csaba Demeter assistant professor, Péter Pajkossy assistant professor, Ágnes Szőllősi scientific research fellow, Renáta Dombovits PhD student, Dorottya Bencze PhD student, Miklós Marián PhD student, Ádám Markója PhD student, Anita Lencsés research assistant, Zsófia Miklós  research assistant, Edina Török research assistant.

“For a few hundred years now, we have been embracing a general idea about the criteria of successful learning: the more complex the way information is entered into our memory, the more easily it will be remembered. However, carefully designed and documented studies have shown that long term and lasting knowledge is not achieved through associations or adding so-called mind maps to the material to be remembered. A good example is cramming: the good grade earned by reading the required information multiple times the night before the exam is usually a false success providing only superficial knowledge forgotten by students in a short time,” explained the expert also revealing that to ensure lasting knowledge we need to retrieve memories associated with the information learned as many times as possible and thus test ourselves. “In practice, this means that after having read the material to learn and having allowed some time to forget, the student asks himself/herself questions to test his/her knowledge and thus reconstructs the material to remember. Another benefit of this method is that it is able to resist forgetting and stress, other learning strategies do not interfere with its effectiveness and success is not negatively affected by the potentially debilitating exam jitters that often involve anxiety leading to poorer performance.  Thanks to these properties, the testing effect retains knowledge and offers a viable method for knowledge transfer as well. The latter means that we do not only remember what we have learned but can also apply what we have learned in solving other problems similar to the original one.

Mihály Racsmány believes that the testing effect is an innovative, currently largely unexplored, field of brain research with great potential for new discoveries. Presently, he is working with his team members on the analysis of psychological factors and neurological characteristics in their experimental memory studies. Their latest research findings have been published in a renowned international journal (Editor note: Racsmány, M., Szőllősi, Á., & Bencze, D. (2018). Retrieval practice makes procedure from remembering: An automatization account of the testing effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44 (1)). This says that “retrieval-based learning has the properties characteristic of skill learning. The method of retrieval is intensive, well-constructed and helps speed up remembering with the passage of time, in other words information learned through testing is not only easier to remember but also faster to retrieve,” BME’s professor and researcher told bme.hu. He believes that the retrieval-based testing method is not only effective with students but also with neurodegenerative patient groups with whom traditional learning strategies have failed, including people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or old-age dementia whose conscious memory functions are damaged but continue to be able to learn skills and so their condition can hopefully be improved with this new technique.

Mihály Racsmány thinks that the method under review could also be successfully used in Hungary’s educational system where the present teaching model is mostly focused on the entry of information, that is coding and repetition. “The introduction of the testing method requires a paradigm shift and the technique of repeated retrieval should be first integrated in teacher training. It is very important when the test is introduced and how students receive it. The comprehensive cooperation of psychologists and teachers would be necessary to develop and use tests that fit the age group, the emotional state and the motivation of students and match the topic and the teaching material.” He stressed that “the incorporation of testing-based learning in educational programmes requires systematic methodology development and a large-scale comprehensive review.”

BME’s researcher believes that the introduction of this learning technique is also challenged by subjective factors: “we simply don’t believe that the testing effect can be successful. The human mind has a tendency to rely on the impression experienced in the moment, in other words, it predicts the future based on the present. The technical term for this phenomenon is stability bias. We do not believe that knowledge which presently requires great efforts to recall with tests can be successfully retrieved in the long term and in the meantime we think that the information reread multiple times and easily retrieved in the present will be simply remembered in the future. Usually, both of these ideas are very wrong,” said Mihály Racsmány.

Addressing students, BME’s professor said that “learning can certainly be made easier by analysing the information based on various aspects and by arranging the material into a system by highlighting certain parts with colours. Meanwhile, an even more effective method is to make test questions for the material to be learned after the very first reading and to answer those 2 or 3 times while allowing some time to forget what has been learned to some extent in order to require some effort to be able to retrieve the information. The results will be clear: this information will be remembered for many weeks and months after it had been learned.

Regarding their future plans, Mihály Racsmány said that the research team will continue its scientific work focusing on the understanding of the neurological background of the method. Their studies will primarily try to reveal the extent the test-based learning techniques involve various neurological networks similarly to the traditional restudy-based learning methods. They are examining the way the effect works in the case of various neurological and psychiatric patient groups as well as people suffering from old-age dementia in order for the scientists to use existing research results to develop different rehabilitation procedures for these diseases.

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Photo: János Philip