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The testing effect and the complexity of the learning material: The adequacy of the knowledge base as a moderator?

The (backward) testing effect constitutes the finding that practicing retrieval after initial study is more effective than other restudy techniques. The effect is one of the best-researched findings on long-term learning and has been demonstrated in both lab and classroom studies. However, retrieval practice with more complex materials might not be beneficial for all learning. Indeed, several studies using complex materials have failed to find a testing effect. If this assumption is true, its applicability in school and higher education would clearly be compromised. Conversely, if retrieval practice is prematurely discarded as beneficial for more complex materials, learners would be deprived of one of the most effective techniques for lasting learning, especially seniors in high school and students in higher education who are typically learning more complex subject matter.
The main goal of this research project is to test the alternative explanation that learners had not adequately understood the subject matter by the time the consolidation phase started, which resulted in less effective retrieval practice than with less complex materials. Thus, we assume that the testing effect will occur even with complex learning materials when learners adequately understand the learning material in the initial learning phase. We plan two series of field experiments and an additional joint experiment that will take place in eleventh-grade German classes, and the learning materials will cover a topic that is part of the curriculum.

Keywords: testing effect; complexity; element interactivity; learning with texts

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Rummer, R., & Schweppe, J. (2022). Komplexität und der Testungseffekt: Die mögliche Bedeutung der Verständnissicherung für den Nutzen von Abrufübung bei komplexem Lernmaterial. [Complexity and the testing effect: The potential importance of securing understanding for the benefits of retrieval practice with complex learning materials.]  Unterrichtswissenschaft, 50, 37–52.

Rummer, R., Schweppe, J., & Schwede, A. (2019). Open-book vs. closed-book tests in university classes: A field experiment. Frontiers in Psychology, 10:463.

Schweppe, J., & Rummer, R. (2023). Wrapping up lessons with closed-book and open-book tests. In C. E. Overson, C. M.  Hakala, L. L. Kordonowy, & V. A. Benassi (Eds.), In their own words: What scholars and teachers want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting (pp. 494–498). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Weissgerber, S. C., Terhorst, D. I. P., & Rummer, R. (2023). Is the perceptual disfluency effect moderated by working memory capacity? Direct replication of Lehmann et al. (2016). Metacognition and Learning, 1-26.


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