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Practice testing

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Practice testing, also known as retrieval practice, involves studying a topic and then trying to recall the newly studied material. For example, students read a passage or watch a lecture and then try to recall as much as they can. Or, students read an article followed by a practice quiz. Practice testing is a highly effective learning strategy (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). 


  1. Online practice quizzes. Use multiple choice or short answer questions that students answer online after reading a class assignment and before class meets.

  2. Practice quiz at start of class. Quiz at the start of class to test material from previous class period and/or material students prepared for the current class period

  3. Practice quiz at end of class. Quiz at end of class to test material from that class period. 

  4. Periodically include a question from a previous class period. 

Tips to Implement Practice Testing Effectively

  • Focus on key course concepts. Align the quiz items with core course concepts. Use practice testing as a way to support learning the most important concepts and ideas in the course.

  • Low stakes quizzes. Students should have opportunities to practice and make mistakes without focusing on being graded. You can include practice as part of the course grade, like class participation.

  • Type of questions. Multiple choice items work, short answer items work better because they involve more extensive retrieval effort from the student.

  • Feedback. Practice testing works without providing feedback to the student! But it works a lot better with feedback. There is no need for the instructor to provide individual comments to students. Feedback can be automated in the form of well developed model answers to the questions. Students can then compare their answers to the model.  

  • Timing and access to feedback. Delay feedback until students have attempted to answer the question. Feedback works best if students first try to recall an answer and then receive feedback. If students have immediate access to feedback, they may skip the retrieval practice and focus on memorizing the feedback.

  • Include the practice quiz items on exams! If the core concepts are important, then the items should be included on the course exams. If you want students to develop durable, long lasting learning, use core concepts cumulatively, i.e., include core concept items on several practice quizzes and tests throughout the semester.

  • Convince students that practice testing is effective. Students may balk at the idea of practice testing. Studies show that students view practice testing as tedious and ineffective, and instead use rereading as their primary study strategy. Rereading leads to a sense of familiarity with the material, which students tend to equate with knowledge of the material. But, familiarity is not an accurate indicator of knowing the material. Rereading is ineffective. There is an increase in learning with one rereading but very little improvement as a result of additional rereading. To convince them that practice testing is better, show students the results of studies [link here] and/or use an in-class exercise to demonstrate its effectiveness. 


  • Test Enhanced Learning 5-minute video about practice testing. 
  • Roediger H. L., III, Putnam A. L., Smith M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice, in Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Cognition in Education, eds Mestre J., Ross B., editors. (Oxford: Elsevier; ), 1–36. 
  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58.
  • Karpicke, J. & Blunt, R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science. 331, 772-775.
  • Roediger, H., McDaniel, M., & McDermott, K. (March, 2006). Test enhanced learning. APS Observer. Vol. 19, No. 3.

Cerbin, W. (2015). Practice testing. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from