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(From left to right) Seniors Mary Blendermann, Giannina Imperial, and Colby Clark presented their research findings on different exam question formats at a meeting of the Psychonomic Society.
Jeri Little | Courtesy

College students may not enjoy taking tests, but according to a study three Hillsdale College students presented last weekend, test-taking may be what helps them learn.

On Friday, seniors Mary Blendermann, Colby Clark, and Giannina Imperial presented their research in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, the top international conference for cognitive psychology.

Over the summer, the students conducted research with Jeri Little, who taught at Hillsdale for three years and began this fall as an assistant professor of psychology at California State University.

They compared multiple-choice and matching questions to see which produced a better result. To their knowledge, no one else had studied how matching tests promoted learning retention before.

“Our results showed that matching questions are an efficient way to promote test-induced learning, and such learning gains may be greater than multiple-choice or cued-recall questions,” Little said.

Their results showed that each type of question aids the learning process, but matching questions can do a better job than multiple-choice questions, because the test-taker must analyze each option, rather than just choosing the one correct answer and moving on.

Blendermann and Little also discovered that “none of the above” answers helped the learning process only when the answer was an incorrect option.

“The biggest takeaway from research on test-taking is that it’s a good learning tool,” Clark said. “If you had the choice between just re-reading text or quizzing yourself with actual multiple choice questions, always do the test because even if it seems more difficult and it’s more laborious, you’re going to learn the material in much more depth, and it will ultimately be more efficient.”

To investigate the types of test questions, the students created a research goal, combined multiple-choice questions from previous studies with their new questions, and adapted all the questions into matching format.

They created an online survey for participants, contributed to coding and data analysis, and wrote the results in a research paper.

Little, a fellow in the Psychonomic Society, has attended its conferences for more than 10 years and invited the students to come with her this year to present their research.

On Friday evening, the students took turns over a couple of hours explaining a poster about their study to conference attendees, mostly graduate or postdoctoral researchers. The students heard encouragement and suggestions for further study as feedback.

“People really seemed to care about it,” Clark said. “They had really intelligent feedback, and that’s just because of the nature of the conference. It’s a very specialized field, so everyone had a good idea of what we were doing and could appreciate it.”

For the rest of the weekend, the students browsed other research posters and listened to lectures.

“To anyone involved in research, whether in social or natural sciences, I highly recommend attending a research conference and presenting your work to other like-minded researchers,” Imperial said. “Not only is it a great résumé builder and a great way to get your name and research out there in the public for other scientists to see, but it’s a fantastic way to learn more about the different areas of study in your field, and it is just so much fun to go to conferences like this.”

Clark said the findings of their own study haven’t made him more excited about taking tests in his classes, but it has taught him about their value.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not a pain, but that’s indicative of the fact that it’s actually making you think through the process — and you really know if you know it,” Clark said.