In February of this year, the LSE Teaching and Learning Centre’s Academic Developer Mark Baltovic attended the annual HEA Conference on STEM education, which this year looked at creativity in teaching, learning and student engagement. In this blog post, Mark discusses one of the interesting ideas discussed during the conference, the forward testing effect, and considers its practical potential for teaching and learning.


coloured pencils

The HEA Conference on STEM education is a fascinating annual event where practitioners from across the sector – including undergraduate students, teaching fellows, course lecturers and programme maintainers – come together to share and discuss innovative practice, ongoing developments at course, programme and institution level, and theoretical developments that might inform future educational change. Of the many ideas that were discussed at the conference one in particular, which struck a chord with me and may be of interest to departments across the School as they review and re-evaluate the role and nature of assessment in their courses and programmes, is the forward testing effect.

To better understand what the forward testing effect is and its possible implications, it is useful to first highlight what it explicitly is not and discuss the backward testing effect. The backward testing effect, in which the learning and retention of previously studied material is reinforced through testing, is well observed in (experimental) laboratory situations. It is also seen in classroom studies in a broad range of subjects (including foreign languages, history and even statistics.) Studies have shown that the ability of students to recall material they have studied before is improved through the use of testing (or some form of retrieval practice), and to a greater degree than simply restudying the same material. This is considered a direct effect of testing, as opposed to an indirect one, which is realised only through other subsequent events, and is observed not just in experimental laboratory situations, but also in classroom studies. For those who are interested in finding out more, Karpicke, (2012) offers a student focused review of the backward testing effect.

A less well-known phenomenon is the forward testing effect, which suggests that the testing of previously studied material can enhance the retention and learning of new material. While not a new phenomenon (indeed, it was first reported as early as 1909), there has recently been a renewed interest in the possibilities of forward testing in education – to date research has largely been confined to laboratory settings (as opposed to real-world classroom settings.)

The basic approach is to consider how subjects fare with a sequence of self-contained learning tasks (i.e. that do not overlap in terms of information). A control group of subjects is tested on a subset of these tasks, while another group (the ‘interim test’ group) is tested on all tasks. Studies so far show that the interim test group outperforms the control group on the common subset of tasks. Further refinements to this approach have shown that interim testing is more effective than restudying, and that it is the testing component that facilitates learning (and not simply intervening cognitive activity between major tests). Perhaps one of the reasons why it is interesting is that the effect can also be seen on the learning of new information that is not related to the previously tested material. While initial experiments used disjointed lists of words, later studies have reproduced these results with other kinds of materials, including complex texts, narratives, pictures and even videos.

To what extent could this influence and inform actual educational practice? So far there have, unfortunately, been few classroom studies (i.e. performed in real educational contexts) on the forward testing effect. The first step towards this was when Szpunar et al, (2013) used actual educational materials (in their case online video lectures for an introductory statistics course) in their laboratory study of the effects interim testing has on learning and recall. The study resulted not only in improved performance in retrieval of information, but increased frequency of note taking, and less self-reported mind wandering and feelings of anxiety towards the final test.

Of course, more study, particularly within real world learning environments, is required to determine the potential benefits of forward testing. Current research has focused on retention tests, with success determined by how well learners can recall specific information; but this does not necessarily mean that students will be able to subsequently identify the underlying principles and patterns, effectively transferring their learning to outside the classroom. Moreover, little has been done to explore how this effect interacts with student age or particular memory and/or attention deficits. Clinical studies have shown that forward testing can enhance learning for people with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury – but these are exceptional situations and give little insight into the typical challenges facing students in Higher Education.

While for now this fascinating phenomenon raises more questions than it provides answers, it certainly merits further investigation. For the interested reader, Pastötter and Bäuml (2014) give an elegant review of the literature and empirical evidence on forward testing, as well as further discussion on theoretical explanations of the effect.

  1. Karpicke, J.D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Concurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157–163.
  1. Pastötter, B., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2014). Retrieval practice enhances new learning: The forward effect of testing. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(APR), 1–5.
  2. Szpunar, K. K., Khan, N. Y., & Schacter, D. L. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313–6317.


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