The forward effects of testing

Simon Hennessy

English expert at Atomi


min read

Testing is most commonly understood - and used - as an evaluative assessment tool. But remarkably, and somewhat counter-intuitively, testing also has a lingering ‘forward’ effect. That is, learning new content immediately after a test has occurred, even if unrelated to the content contained within the test, is "easier".

Testing is oftentimes considered simply as the barometer by which students are evaluated. While true on one level, its greatest use lies as a learning tool. The form of testing as learning with which we are most familiar is what is commonly known as the “backward effect”: by creating an effortful recall of information that has been learned in the past, we learn that information better.

It’s worth unpacking what these effects are, and how they can be deployed in the classroom to help content retention and application

The backward effect

In terms of testing effects, most of us are intuitively familiar with the concept that testing not only helps assess what we know but also helps reinforce the knowledge that we’re able to recall and apply. This learning effect from being asked to actively recall information in a test is known as the ‘backward’ effect of testing.

In order to unpack this a little more, it’s important to understand a little bit about how memory works. Memory is broadly considered to involve three steps: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Most traditional/common study habits involve the first two steps- e.g. doing a lot of maths questions with the formula at hand helps students work on the encoding and storage parts of the process. But this form of learning is generally regarded as ‘passive’ because the degree of recall needed isn’t very high; with the formula in full-view, for example, the application of that formula to questions is made far easier.

“Effortful” - or “active” - learning involves the forced retrieval of information. By being forced to remember things in a difficult, active way, information is more easily remembered in the long-run. In the context of actual tests and exams, this means that participation in the exam also reinforces the information in the brain.

Studies such as that run by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke in 2006, corroborate the theory when put into practice with students. Testing evidently offers significant backwards value for the retention of the material being tested.

In short - if you’re forcing yourself to remember something, like with any muscle, you get better at remembering and understanding it.

The forward effect

While the backward effect reinforces knowledge we have just been tested on, the forward effect moves the dial in the other direction and reinforces knowledge consumed after the test has finished. The effects of the retrieval step of the memory process extend “forward”, beyond merely that which is being retrieved, into that which is encoded and stored in the immediate aftermath of the test.

In other words: testing enhances retention of content learned after a test - even if that content is relatively unrelated to the content of the test itself.

For example, imagine that you have just put your students through a Maths test, focusing on quadratic equations. Let’s say that you then decide that the next item on the agenda for your classroom is to watch a video on differentiation. Your students’ chances of accurately retaining the information consumed from this video are significantly increased by the forward effects of having the test they took beforehand.

This upsurge in retention is not a result of the test having been one on quadratic equations, nor is differentiation particularly amenable to this forward effect. The mere act of putting the recall capabilities of your students to the test will strengthen them in the immediate term, opening the door for the next content they consume to be a great deal more memorable.

Research such as that undertaken by Bernhard Pastötter and Karl-Heinz T. Bäuml in 2014 verifies the validity of the theory in a laboratory setting and recommends that the forward effect be put to use in a conventional education setting.

A popular theory for this phenomenon put forward by Bernhard Pastötter, Miriam Engel and Christian Frings, concerns the reset-of-encoding process. The hypothesis argues that, while continuous studying decreases encoding efficacy, testing resets one’s encoding capabilities. The subsequent broaching of new material, therefore, is effectively like coming at it with a blank slate, free and ready to be filled from scratch.

Harnessing the forward effect

Recognising the existence of the above two effects of testing on learning outcomes for students has consequences for potential lesson planning. For example, instead of wrapping a class with a test - and exploiting only the backward effect of testing - commence a class with a quick 3-5 minute pop quiz of content studied the day (or a few days) prior, before diving into new content. This allows for active recall/retrieval of previous information (the backward effect), as well as using the test as a platform to help students focus as they begin to dive into new content with greater ease (the forward effect).

This also has consequences for homework sets as well. For example, in order to exploit the same effects in a similar way, teachers could prescribe that students should commence their homework with a set of questions, before engaging in some pre-work for class the next day.

There are a number of e-learning platforms that make incorporating these sorts of mini-tests into learning habits a relative breeze. In this regard, quality platforms will have quizzes encouraging active recall, as well as easily digested content, so that a lesson can commence with a brief quiz, and then a short video/segment of content to help cover and meaningfully retain new content - whether in the classroom or at home.

Forward and backward are the right ways upward

Most classrooms already tap into the backward effect of testing, delivering value for students' retention capabilities through testing their knowledge of content. For the discerning teacher seeking to tap fully into her students’ knowledge retention capabilities, recalibrating their plans so as to actively harness the backward and forward effects of testing, paves the way onwards and upwards.

Liked what you read? Check out more great articles:

Alternate measures to banning phone in the classroom

Addressing the concerns about flipped learning

Four pillars of successful leadership


Published on

October 27, 2019

What's Atomi?

Short sharp videos and lessons

Engaging, curriculum-specific videos and interactive lessons backed by research, so you can study smarter, not harder.

Interactive quizzes and revision

With tens of thousands of practice questions and custom revision sessions, you won’t just think you’re ready. You’ll know you are!

Super smart features

Study skills strategies and tips, AI-powered revision recommendations and progress insights help you stay on track.

What's Atomi?

Engaging curriculum-specific videos

Short, curriculum-specific videos and interactive content that’s easy to understand and backed by the latest research.

Continuous assessment tools

Active recall quizzes, topic-based tests and exam practice enable students to build their skills and get immediate feedback.

Powerful intelligence

Our AI understands each student's progress and makes intelligent recommendations based on their strengths and weaknesses.

Try the ultimate study resource for high school

Start empowering your classroom today