Science of Learning Research Centre

PEN Principle #9 Active Recall Trumps Passive Review

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Do students prefer multiple choice exam questions? Researchers have found the answer

fact sheet – video – podcast

Researchers have determined that students would much prefer exams to be full of multiple choice questions rather than open-ended ones … but why is that? fact sheet

PEN Principle #9 copyThe simple answer is that multiple choice questioning is easier on the brain. video

Applying neuroscience, cognitive psychology and educational processes, Australian researchers have found however that while multiple choice questioning might be easier for students, open-ended questions are more likely to deliver longer-term benefits and improved learning outcomes. podcast

The Active Recall Trumps Passive Review message is among a series of new PEN Principles – Psychology, Education and Neuroscience – developed by Australia’s Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) to assist teachers, students and parents across the country.

The researchers have been assessing a range of teaching and learning processes in an effort to develop science-based strategies, tools and information designed to improve Australia’s learning and educational outcomes.

Researchers have found that multiple choice and open-ended questions test different memory systems within the brain – known as ‘recognition memory’ and ‘recall memory’. In regards to multiple choice, these types of questions trigger previous recognition exposure to the same information. Open-ended questions test recall memory which means the brain must actively retrieve information from the past with few guiding cues to help.

Brain scans have shown neuroscientists that when people are using recognition memory, there is weak neural activity in shallow memory networks of the brain, while in contrast recall memory showed stronger neural activity in deeper brain memory networks.

Importantly testing in the classroom has shown that students using active recall learning methods produced stronger long-term memory and significantly improved performance when compared to students undertaking passive review practices which trigger recognition memory networks.

The PEN Principles have been developed in video, podcast and poster format to enable ease of use by teachers, students and parents.


About The SLRC

The Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) was established in 2013, funded as an Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative, with the vision to improve learning outcomes at pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary levels through scientifically-validated learning tools and strategies. The SLRC brings together more than 100 neuroscientists, psychologists and education researchers from across the country, collaborating on programs to better understand learning, using a range of innovative experimental techniques and programs.