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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of “Best” Practices: Some Lessons from the Memory Laboratory

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of “Best” Practices: Some Lessons from the Memory Laboratory

Mark McDaniel

Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Date: April 13, 2017

Location: MLC Reading Room


Basic memory research shows that retrieval enhances subsequent retention. The implication is that testing should be used to promote learning and retention, not just for summative assessment. In this session, co-sponsored by the SEER Center, Mark presents a number of experimental demonstrations of test-enhanced learning in middle school classrooms showing that quizzing results in subsequent improvement on exam performances relative to target content that is not quizzed or that is presented for restudy (the Good). However, data from introductory college psychology teachers suggest that the way quizzing is used in their classrooms can misalign in an important manner from the basic research. Mark presents results showing that sometimes this misalignment does not produce intended consequences (the Bad). Another “best” practice being touted is that of desirable difficulties. Unfortunately, this advice does not incorporate the well-supported memory principle of transfer appropriate processing. As illustrated in our research, a critical outcome following from this implication is that desirable difficulties that are inappropriate for information targeted by a particular test have negative cascading effects for metacomprehension, control of study processes, and final test performance (the Ugly).

About the Speaker

Mark McDaniel is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences (1980 Ph.D., University of Colorado), and the founding Co-Director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis.  McDaniel is internationally known for his work in the application of cognitive psychological principles to education. Over the past 35 years he has published numerous papers related to education, including topics such as pre-questions, discovery learning, feedback, mental models, analogical learning, and classroom studies on testing effects.   

McDaniel has developed a number of other research foci in the general area of human learning and memory, including projects investigating the learning processes by which people acquire complex concepts. An important aspect of this work is exploring individual differences in the tendency for learners to focus on abstraction versus learning of examples when attempting to acquire complex concepts.  His research also includes an emphasis on prospective memory (remembering to perform an intended action at some future moment).

McDaniel has published over 250 articles, chapters, and books in the area of human learning and memory. To facilitate dissemination of research literatures pertinent to learning and education, with Peter Brown and Roddy Roediger, he co-authored a book published by Harvard University Press entitled Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014).