Do We Need Tests to Learn?

Do we need tests to learn?

Do we need tests to learn?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that tests are not just tools for assessment but are essential for enhancing learning and retention. By incorporating practice tests and self-testing strategies, educators can significantly improve student learning outcomes. Future research should continue to explore the boundary conditions and underlying mechanisms of the testing effect to optimize its application in educational settings.


The role of testing in education has been a subject of extensive research and debate. While traditional views often consider tests merely as tools for assessment, recent studies suggest that testing can significantly enhance learning and retention. This article explores the necessity of tests in the learning process, drawing on findings from multiple research papers.

The Testing Effect

The “testing effect” refers to the phenomenon where taking a test on studied material leads to better long-term retention compared to other study methods such as restudying or engaging in filler activities. A meta-analysis by1 highlights that practice tests are more beneficial for learning than restudying and other comparison conditions. This effect is robust across various contexts and is influenced by factors such as test format, feedback, and the complexity of the material.

Enhancing Long-Term Learning

Research from cognitive science indicates that repeated retrieval through testing enhances long-term learning. Feedback further amplifies this benefit, and the advantages of testing extend beyond rote memory to include deeper understanding and application of knowledge2. This suggests that testing can be a powerful tool for promoting meaningful learning in educational settings.

Classroom Applications

A systematic review involving data from over 48,000 students found that testing (quizzing) significantly boosts classroom learning compared to other strategies like concept mapping3. The study also identified several factors that modulate the effectiveness of testing, including the consistency of test formats, the provision of corrective feedback, and the number of test repetitions.

Special Populations

Testing has been shown to improve learning outcomes even for students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A study comparing practice testing with restudying found that both groups, with and without ADHD, demonstrated a moderate testing effect, suggesting that testing can be an effective strategy for diverse student populations4.

Underutilization and Potential

Despite strong evidence supporting the testing effect, it remains underutilized as a pedagogical strategy. Testing that promotes recall rather than recognition, repeated at intervals, and accompanied by feedback is optimal for learning. Educators are encouraged to integrate self-testing strategies to support lifelong learning5.

Boundary Conditions

The effectiveness of the testing effect can vary depending on the complexity of the learning materials. Research indicates that the testing effect decreases or even disappears as the complexity of the material increases, which is a critical consideration for educational practice6.

Theoretical Implications

The testing effect challenges traditional theories of learning that focus primarily on information processing during initial training. The additional processing that occurs during testing is relevant for future performance, suggesting that learning continues during the retrieval process7.

Assessment and Education

The role of testing in education is complex and multifaceted. While traditional large-scale testing has been criticized for focusing on rote memorization, there is potential for combining assessment with learning strategies to improve educational outcomes8.

Forward Testing Effect

Testing not only enhances retention of previously studied material but also facilitates the learning of new information. This forward testing effect is beneficial even when tests are partial or distributed, reducing proactive interference and enhancing new learning9.

Learner Characteristics

The benefits of practice testing are generally robust across different learner characteristics, including cognitive, motivational, and emotional dispositions. This suggests that practice testing can be an effective learning strategy for a wide range of students10.


Do we need tests to learn?

Laura Ward has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Glasgow in Psychology, Public Health

Human beings have been learning far longer than formal testing has been employed. Some historical tests would be fatal as individuals would die if they didn’t learn basic survival or safety of their environments. Modern day tests have been devised to assess formal learning, for better or worse. Francis Galton achieved a great deal for science and in the late 1800’s he developed formal testing of an individual’s intelligence. Whilst methodologies are integral to advancing science, these need scrutinised and developed also. Let’s not forget that previous scientists have attributed a large forehead to becoming a criminal. Modern science and medicine is more heavily scrutinised and reviewed compared to historical advancements. I hope that all learning in education settings is based on evidence-based science, but I have no doubt that we can learn without tests. Our brains are firing neurons of information sharing constantly, the developmental changes in babies and toddlers are evidence they are learning all the time, but do not need formally tested. We all need to learn, but only some of us may be praised as having learnt well via a test, whilst the merit of life-experience is undoubtedly important.


Do we need tests to learn?

Diane Grayson has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Witwatersrand in Education

My answer is no. As an adult with good self-regulation and metacognitive skills, I learn all the time without tests. However, for novice learners who are still developing such skills, being provided with structured opportunities to demonstrate their learning and to get useful feedback, such as can be provided in a well-designed and carefully graded test, can contribute to learning. If, however, a test does not align to the outcomes that both teacher and student understand are the goals of the learning programme or activity and/or there is little useful and constructive feedback provided to the student, then the test is unlikely to support learning. It may, in fact, undermine deep and meaningful learning if the test questions are too divergent from the learning outcomes or the feedback is cursory or, worse still, demoralising.


Do we need tests to learn?

Dan Isbell has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Hawaii at Manoa in Linguistics

We do not need tests to learn, but testing can benefit learning. Regular testing of taught material can aid learning; recent research in second language vocabulary learning suggests that regular quizzing leads to improved word learning, for example. Tests require students to recall information, which is known to benefit learning, and preparing for a test may lead students to spend more time engaging with material or honing skills, which also benefits learning.


Do we need tests to learn?

Edith Kaan has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Florida in Language Studies

No, tests are not needed to learn. You can learn something (e.g. a word) even after only hearing it once (this is called “one-shot learning”). Tests do tend to help learning since knowing that you will be tested can be a motivation to rehearse the materials, and in that way, more deeply encode them. It has also been shown that you learn better if you try to come up with an answer first and can check immediately whether you got it right or wrong (e.g. Potts and Shanks, 2014). Also here, motivation and reward of getting things right may lead to better encoding and better learning from errors. You do not need a formal test for this, though!  


Do we need tests to learn?

Dominic Wyse has answered Unlikely

An expert from University College London in Education

Tests and exams are one way to assess pupils’ learning. Optimal learning happens when teachers assess children’s learning then base teaching on their assessments of children learning. Tests and exams are a summative assessment of an aspects of pupils’ progress. There are other ways of assessing pupils’ learning that give formative information to teachers. Finally, it is important to note that we all learn some things without any assessment at all so the literal answer to the question is no we don’t need tests or examples to learn although high quality teacher assessment does usually help people learn quicker.


Do we need tests to learn?

Ayşenur Sağdıç  has answered Unlikely

An expert from Georgetown University in Linguistics

Tests involve questions, problem sets, or exercises that are posed to evaluate a particular skill or a set of skills and come in many forms (e.g., self-assessment tests, diagnostics, summative vs formative assessment tools). Young children, for instance, are capable of acquiring a first language without taking any external tests; however, as several studies indicate, first language acquisition does involve frequent hypothesis testing. While we, as humans, do not necessarily need tests to learn new information, reliable and valid tests can facilitate short-term and long-term learning outcomes in meaningful ways. Good tests

1) provide insights and feedback on what has been learned and what has yet to be learned.

2) motivate learners to continue improving their knowledge or skillset.

3) motivate educators to implement optimal instructional practices, also known as positive washback.

4) allow education stakeholders to make actionable and systematic recommendations in terms of program needs and goals.


Do we need tests to learn?

Emma Blakey has answered Likely

An expert from University of Sheffield in Psychology, Cognitive Science

Karpicke and Roediger’s (2008) cognitive Psychology study has been very influential in informing educators’ on how we can utilise assessments to improve students’ learning. In their paper, they report a learning experiment where they found that repeated studying after learning had no effect on students’ recall, but repeated testing improved students’ recall dramatically. The study nicely demonstrates the importance of retrieval in learning. The more that information is retrieved over time (recalled in our heads), the better we will learn and remember it. Tests provide an ideal format to do that and support us in learning knowledge explicitly (with full awareness). However, it is also important to remember that some learning (particularly procedural or skill learning such as riding a bike) can also be learned implicitly with practice.

Reference: Karpicke, J. D. & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319, 966-968.


Do we need tests to learn?

Michael Thomas has answered Unlikely

An expert from Birkbeck, University of London in Psychology, Cognitive Science, Intelligence

No, but testing can help us learn by giving us practice in accessing and organising the content of learning. It strengthens the connections between prefrontal cortex (which tries to reactive knowledge in the appropriate circumstances) and posterior cortex (where the sensory and conceptual content of knowledge is stored). Testing plays a separate role in monitoring the progress of learning. Sometimes, the monitoring (summative) and learning (formative) aspects of testing pull in the same direction, but sometimes they don’t (e.g., only learning what you think will be in the test).


Do we need tests to learn?

Yousef Khalifa Aleghfeli has answered Unlikely

An expert from Oxford University in Education

No. Tests/exams are just one of many tools to help in learning. Although tests and exams are useful tools for learning, we do not necessarily need them. They are simple one of several tools to use for learning, and it’s good to assess the learner’s context to determine what combination of tools are contextually appropriate and can ensure optimal learning. In short, we would only require tests/exams if the individual needs and circumstances of learners require them.

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