I don’t really know where to start with this, so I apologise if it seems a little muddled. Overall, I think this module has been really good. I’m not going to lie, one of my primary motivations for taking it was the lack of the exam at the end (if I’m alone in this I’m going to feel bad!). But I never expected it to take up so much of my time during the week. Whilst at first this annoyed my lazy self, I think it has actually worked far more effectively than any module I’ve taken before at University. I can positively, 100% say that I have spent more time on this module than any other. Even taking into account the revision times I usually need at the end.

                So what are the repercussions of spending so much time on this? Well, firstly, I think that it has genuinely helped develop not only my writing, but the whole process of researching a topic, finding relevant studies, and then discussing it critically. I even found myself sometimes getting quite passionate when perhaps someone had a comment that I felt was going against my topic. But then I surprised myself; rather than writing a snarky comment back, I actually furthered my research and then replied stating how my blog was heavily supported by studies, or I amended my thoughts to the correction. I know at this point in my life I should be doing this, but it is very exciting to develop a new skill of not just stubbornly arguing yourself into a corner, but accepting when your opinion needs to adapt and incorporate new and interesting ideas and perspectives.

                Beyond developing my skills, I feel I have genuinely learnt a lot about education. I was never truly interested in education before and very much in the opinion of “who really cares. We all ‘suffered’ the current education system and came out the end still smiling”. But after reading all these blogs, I’ve realised how much better education can be for everyone. Just imagine where society would be if we did everything right! Very exciting! But more than this, I think the way that children who struggle with education, but perhaps aren’t in special needs is one of the biggest areas that needs change. This requires such a shift in thinking though, and it’s such a shame that it seems unlikely that we will see a drastic change any time soon.

Synthesis of Topic

So here we are already, the end of the road. When I set about choosing a topic, I picked punishment and reinforcement as I felt that they were something that many people take for granted in the classroom setting. Quite often it seems that teachers offer punishments in particular, without a full understanding of the implications. I think that this is a very important area in education. The right type of reinforcement can be hugely beneficial, and whilst many forms of punishment have been shown to not be as effective at behaviour modification as reinforcement, they do appear to still have a place.

My last presentation looked into the good and bad sides of punishment:


Praise and rewards have been shown to be an effective way at shaping children’s behaviour and making them more engaged in their education (Madsen et al, 1968, Van der Mars, 1989). This is a very important positive aspect, as not only does it help the children get a better education, but if inappropriate behaviours are being reduced, then it is more conducive  to a positive working environment, meaning that it helps everyone. However it is very important that reinforcement is used correctly. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) show that in order to be effective, praise must be perceived as sincere, but not only this, it has to be for the right behaviour. This is perhaps the biggest caution when using reinforcement. Reinforcing behaviours that are attributable to internal, controllable causes, will promote competence and help the child. However if reinforcement is given for external causes, then some people argue that this will actually be maladaptive and stifle the individual (Cannella, 1986). Furthermore, if the wrong behaviour is reinforced, then the child may lose internal motivation. They will become more focused on receiving the reward, than positively engaging with the material, and this is obviously not the idea of reinforcement. So reinforcement and rewards are very useful tools that can be successfully applied in the classroom to benefit every pupils education, however care is needed to ensure that it is not misused, which can be maladaptive.

So now we get on to punishment. I think it is all too easy to see how effective reinforcement is and just assume that punishments are therefore just a knee-jerk reaction to something the teacher doesn’t like. Lewis (1999) however, points out that it does actually have its place; one of the teacher’s roles is to maintain classroom discipline and whilst reinforcement is used essentially used to avoid disruptive behaviour, punishment can be used to immediately combat disruptive behaviour. Moles (2006) mentioned that disruptive behaviour is ’contagious’, and affects the whole class, not just the individual. With children, disruptive behaviour is somewhat inevitable, and so punishment can be used to remove the disruptive behaviour before it becomes a threat to learning, thus maintaining classroom discipline. However, like reinforcement, it is pointed out that how it is used is also very important. There is a difference between a child that is acting disruptive because they want to act disruptive, and because they just can’t engage with the material. For children who can’t engage, it is perhaps not necessary to use punishment at all, however with the other child it may be necessary. Another important aspect to consider is who is giving the punishments. Some studies highlight the fact that teachers are just normal people, who hold the same biases and prejudices as everyone else (Hurrell, 1995, Lewis, 2001). Whilst they will try to be impartial, it is often found the things such as gender biases are seen when punishments are administered. It is also noted that some punishments, such as time outs, serve to reinforce bad behaviour, as they can remove children from work that they didn’t want to do. Overall punishments do have their place and can be used very effectively with reinforcement to maintain positive learning environments whilst increasing engagement with the material; however teachers need to be very careful about how they are using them.

So I think it is pretty obvious by now that reinforcement and punishment can be used very effectively, but how they are employed is crucial. But I think it can be all too easy to get caught up in the theory and not actually see how in a real world setting they can work to do good. A big area where these techniques are used is in special education classrooms. Broden et al (1970) found that when reinforcement in the form of teacher attention and token economies were used, not only did disruptive behaviour decrease, but study levels increased. These results are not just a fluke, and have been found by many studies (Frederikson and Frederikson, 1975, Pelham et al, 1986). So reinforcement can be used in this setting to not only make behaviour better, but it can genuinely improve children’s learning. I think this is a highly important aspect of reinforcement and entrenches its firm foundations in the classroom.


Madsen et al (1968)

Van der Mars (1989)

Henderlong and Lepper (2002)

Cannella (1986)

Lewis (1999)

Moles (2006)

Hurrell (1995)

Lewis (2001)

Broden et al (1970)

Frederikson and Frederikson (1975)

Pelham et al (1986)

The Usefulness of Token Economies

Over the past few weeks I have talked about reinforcement and punishment in the classroom and the positive and negative aspects around them. This week, I am going to focus on a specific type of reinforcement; token economies and how they can be used to reinforce behaviour. Evaluating reinforcement and punishment as a whole gives you a good idea of the general points, but I think that individually analysing one strategy can be very beneficial in showing you specific merits of application.

I’m sure by this point in our university careers I don’t need to explain the basic concepts of a token economy, but in principle they can be used for reinforcement by awarding a ‘token’ when an appropriate behaviour is met. These tokens can then be redeemed for something of value to the person. Study support for token reinforcement is very widespread. For example Brakefield et al (2012) says how token economy systems are beneficial in education not just for younger students, but for older students as well. This highlights a major upside to tokens; the rewards that are ‘bought’ by the tokens can be changed and shaped for the person who is receiving it. So whilst stickers or toys may suffice for younger children, these can then be adapted into something that older children would actually want. Wolf et al (1968) also shows how it can be used to increase performance of children who perhaps struggle with education. So the nature of token economies makes them very adaptable to a lot of situations, and given how successful they seem to be, it appears to be a very good way of shaping behaviour. The positive effects of token economies can reach beyond the classroom as well; Hendy et al (2005) showed that they could be successfully used to get children to improve their food choice at school and eat more fruit and veg. This is also a very big area (food dudes anyone?) which I simply don’t have enough time to discuss.

One of my previous blogs ( shows how reinforcement can be used effectively in special needs education. I mentioned token economies briefly, but then focused on reinforcement as a whole. I want to focus in specifically on token economies in special education again, as it is a very effective way of applying reinforcement. Evans et al (1995) looked at an automated reinforcement program used with children with ADHD. It basically involved a teacher activating a device every time inappropriate behaviour was displayed. This device automatically deducted the child points for the duration of the inappropriate behaviour. They found that it was very successful in reducing off task behaviour and thus dramatically improving that child’s education. So this study shows that token reinforcement can be successfully applied even for children suffering from behavioural problems. Truchlicka et al (1998) also found that these behavioural changes were maintained over time, again highlighting the long lasting positive effects of token economies. It is important to note, however, that due to the often vast individual differences and challenges in children with behavioural problems, not all studies show hugely significant results (Birnbrauer and Wolf, 1965). Overall though, token economies can be successfully employed in special education.

As with everything in psychology, there are studies that contradict the mainly positive findings. For example Luby (2011) found token economy was not an effective method for modifying behaviour. Nelson (2010) also found interesting results; it was found that for certain individuals, such as those with high conscientiousness or openness scores, did not seem to be affected by token economies. I think rather than discrediting the whole idea of token economies, the small sample sizes and measuring very specific behaviour highlights people’s individuality, and emphasises the point that token economies need to be adapted and tailored to the intended individual in order to see maximum effectiveness. However this raises another issue; Cole et al (2013) (about page 119) outlines how impractical it would be for teachers to not only manage the complexity of what they are teaching, but also observe all target behaviours and give out rewards and token trade-ins. This means that any tokens and rewards will be delayed, which is very maladaptive. Whilst many special education teachers use it successfully, it is noted that they are normally very specialised and skilled teachers, and often have very few children to deal with. Teachers in mainstream education do not have this luxury and have to cater for many different children in many different classes. This shows that whilst the theoretical grounding is very solid, the practicalities of implementing it may be hard for many teachers.

Overall, token economies are very useful methods of reinforcement. They can be implemented successfully not only in mainstream education, but also in special needs education. There are issues with practicality however, although these do not detract from the overall advantages of using token economies in reinforcement.


Brakefield et al (2012)

Wolf et al (1968)

Evans et al (1995);2-8/abstract

Truchlicka et al (1998);2-Z/abstract

Birnbrauer and Wolf (1965)

Luby (2011)

Nelson (2010)

Cole et al (2013)

Negative Aspects of Punishment

In my blog last week, I focused on the positive aspects of punishment and why it has been so widely implemented. I mentioned how it does have a place within schools, however this week I am going to focus on the negative aspects of punishment and how it is often misused, leading to far greater problems than existed to begin with.

The first aspect I will look at is who is getting punished. You would expect that people who misbehave are the ones who get punished right? But Noguera (2003) found that in the US, the ones who were frequently getting punished are ones with particular academic, social, or economic needs, with an emphasis on minorities. Whilst it may be the case that minorities are simply the ones being more disruptive, the fact that they are continually punished and see little behavioural change is a pretty damning case for punishment. Hurrell (1995) conducted a study into teacher’s bias in giving out punishments. Whilst it is important to note they found no discrimination for race or social class, they did find a tendency to punish boys more than girls, even when behaviour was taken into account. Perhaps this follows societal norms, as teachers expect boys to be more misbehaved and deserving of punishment and so are more ready to punish them. This does highlight one big problem with punishments, and the way they are meted out; Teachers are the ones who give students punishments, however we have seen that they can be subject to biases and discrimination. Lewis (2001) also emphasises the fact that teachers are not impartial super humans (Judge Dredd anyone?) and are just as susceptible to all the biases we hold. They are also prone to snapping, especially with the pressure they are constantly under, and shouting out a child would do nothing productive except make them cry. So these studies show that whilst punishment may not be inherently bad, teachers need to be very careful in how they implement them.

Reinforcement is much more effective than punishment at actually changing and shaping behaviour, as outlined by Maag (2001). It also suggests that punishment is used by many teachers simply because it is easy to implement. Reinforcement can take a lot of time and requires patience, and in defence of teachers, they are already very hard working, especially in classroom management. It seems slightly unfair to then expect them to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to shape every trouble makers behaviour. When it actually comes to the punishment though, it is noted how the method of punishment is important, for example Turner and Watson (1999) suggest that ‘time outs’ can be useful, but often serve to actually reinforce bad behaviour. If a child doesn’t like the work they are doing, they will act out and may disrupt others. By punishing them with a time out, you are taking them away from the work they didn’t want to do. This reinforces the bad behaviour, which is completely opposite to what you want. Another type of punishment that is not used in the UK anymore; corporal punishment, also shows how punishment is maladaptive to education and learning. Dubanoski et al (1983) show that corporal punishment leads to more problems than it solves. For example, children have a tendency to avoid the teachers who have given them corporal punishment. This means that these teachers serve no benefit to the child’s education, perhaps even actively making it worse. So this form of punishment is not effective at all and had many negative consequences that far outweigh any positives that may stem from using it.

Overall, punishment does have its use in the classroom and can be effective at immediately stopping disruptive behaviour from affecting a whole class. However teachers need to be very careful not only with the type of punishment they are implementing, but that they are aware of their own biases and do not discriminate.


Noguera (2003)

Hurrell (1995)

Lewis (2001)

Maag (2001)

Turner and Watson (1999);2-3/abstract

Dubanoski et al (1983)

Positive Aspects of Using Punishment

My previous two blogs have been about how reinforcement can be effectively used in the classroom, and my presentation this week was a brief summary of important findings in the area:

The next few weeks I am going to focus on the opposite side; Punishment. Whilst studies such as Magg (2001) show that reinforcement is more effective than punishment for shaping behaviour, it still points out that punishment is widely used in classrooms and education systems all around the world. It is also important to note that punishment still plays an important part in Skinner’s (1938) operant conditioning. Next week’s blog will focus on the negative aspects of using punishment in classrooms, but before that I think it is important to consider the positive aspects it has and why it is so widely used across the world. After all, how can you argue one side without considering the other?

Lewis (1999) highlights the area of punishment well. One of the most significant roles of the teacher is to maintain classroom discipline. It is mentioned how disruptive behaviours can adversely affect not only the disruptive child’s education, but the whole classes. Punishment in the form of things such as detentions and time outs immediately allow teachers to abate these disruptive behaviours before they become a problem for the rest of the class. Lewis (2006) also suggested that teachers use punishment as a response to student misbehaviour, whereas reinforcement is used to avoid it. Whilst reinforcement is effective, behaviours will inevitably occur that are inappropriate. Punishment works here a lot more successfully and instantaneously than any reinforcement techniques. Becker et al (1967) again mentions how when using positive reinforcement, ignoring inappropriate behaviour is best, but when these become destructive, they cannot be ignored.

A very in depth book by Moles (2006) (around page 120) goes into great detail about punishments and discipline used in education. He again points out that discipline is used to mainly combat misbehaviour. But it is pointed out that classroom misbehaviour does not often involve acting violently, which many people think it does, but instead involves attention, crowd control and getting work done. This again highlights how misbehaviour can affect the whole class as opposed to one individual, for example it calls misbehaviour “contagious”. If the teacher has to focus all their efforts on using reinforcement to get one child to pay more attention or get their work done, the rest of the class will suffer as a result. The book also mentions how punishment is effective at removing a “threat to order” and can “inhibit or suppress misbehaviour”. It does however highlight some areas that need considering before a punishment is given; firstly, who the punishment is effective for, and what the effects of the punishment are. There is a distinct difference between children who are misbehaving because they are motivated to misbehave, and those that misbehave because they can’t engage with the material. These would require different types of punishment, but the end goals should still be to reduce the inappropriate behaviour so that they don’t affect other children’s education, as well as optimising their own. The need to be careful with punishment is supported by Bergin and Bergin (1999). They mention how persistent persuasion can be used to effectively reduce inappropriate behaviours, without punishing the child with coercive threats. Persistent persuasion simply involves continually restating a command until it is obeyed.

Overall, reinforcement has been to shown to be more effective than punishment at shaping behaviour and encouraging children to become more engaged with their education. However punishment still plays an important role in enforcing the best possible environment in which to learn, free from distractions and disruptions.

Magg (2001)

Skinner (1938)

Lewis (1999)

Lewis (2006)

Becker et al (1967)

Moles (2006)

Bergin and Bergin (1999)

Reinforcement in Special Needs Education

So it’s finally here, the starting of a topic. Until recently I was sure that I was going to focus on exams, as there is a lot to talk about. But my last blog on rewards and praise got me thinking about how punishments and reinforcement are used in a classroom setting. I feel that this is an area where people take many things for granted and often don’t have a full understanding of why they are using certain punishments or reinforcers. This provides the opportunity to explore a lot of areas and consider their effectiveness. This week I’m going to look at the use of reinforcement in special needs education.

My blog last week showed how reinforcement and rewards can be used in the classroom to shape behaviour and increase engagement with a topic (Madsen et al, 1968, van der Mars, 1989). After doing more research into the area, I noticed that a lot of studies show how reinforcement and rewards are very effective in special needs education, such as with children with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). For example, Broden et al (1970) found that when teacher attention and token reinforcement were used as rewards in a special education class, not only did disruptive behaviour decrease, but study levels increased. Similar results were found by Frederikson and Frederikson (1975), where reinforcement could be used to improve behaviour. This shows that in children with special needs, rewards can go beyond just shaping behaviour and can actually increase their engagement and performance in education. Pelham et al (1986) found that reinforcement had a large beneficial effect on children with Attention Deficit Disorders learning; however it is important to note that rewards were most effective when most effective when combined with a drug used to treat ADD. I think this is very controversial, as I am constantly reminded of this talk (about minute 15), where he explains the story of an amazing woman who people thought had a learning problem, but was just very creative, and became hugely successful and influential, but the same person nowadays would be “put on medication and told to calm down”. This is a very large topic area and way too big for this blog, so perhaps comment if you’d like to discuss it. On the whole though, these studies show that reinforcement can be effectively used to increase the quality of learning in children with special educational needs. I think this is a hugely important application, as it can be used to make a child’s education and life genuinely better, where perhaps before they wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

Whilst reinforcement can be used effectively in special needs education, Luman et al (2009) show that there are certain challenges that need to be addressed. They noted that children with ADHD were unaffected by frequency and magnitude of a reward. This means that varying the magnitude of the results based on the magnitude of the achievement (e.g. something really good gets a larger reward) will not be as effective as when used in mainstream education. Cosden et al (1995) also found that in children with severe behavioural disorders, when rewards were selected by teachers performance wasn’t as high as when the children chose their rewards. These studies show that methods of reinforcement cannot just be taken from mainstream education, but need to be carefully considered and altered in order to be effective.  As an example, Austin and Bevan (2011) suggest one method that can be used to decrease behaviour; having a minimum amount of time pass between responses before reward is given, stopping the child excessively repeating a behaviour. This is similar to fixed interval reinforcement, as described by Skinner (1997). Other schedules of reinforcement can be employed, such as fixed ratio reinforcement, where reinforcement is only given after a set number of responses, as opposed to a set time.

Overall, reinforcement has been found to be very effective at increasing study and positive behaviour in people with special needs. However it is important to consider that the difficulties they have provide unique challenges, which require carefully thought out alterations to normal reinforcement strategies in order for maximum effectiveness to be maintained.


Madsen et al (1968)

van der Mars (1989)

Broden et al (1970)

Frederikson and Frederikson (1975)

Pelham et al (1986)

Luman et al (2009)

Cosden et al (1995)

Austin and Bevan (2011)

Skinner (1997)

Praise and Rewards

I remember a while back hearing a comedian (can’t remember who, sorry) speak about how in schools nowadays, particularly primary schools, rewards and praise are just given out for anything, as opposed to real achievements. This got me thinking; it is undeniable that praise and rewards are a tool utilised by many teachers to ‘shape’ behaviour and get people to behave better, but what are the actual merits of praising a child and giving rewards out? Do children become more obsessed with rewards than learning? Well, as it turns out there are good and bad points to rewards and praise, however there is also a lot of disagreement in the field.

Giving out praise and reward in a classroom setting has be found to be effective at shaping and achieving better behaviour (Madsen et al, 1968). It was found that just employing rules in the classroom didn’t work, but that approval from teachers for appropriate behaviours, whilst ignoring inappropriate, did make children behave better. Partin et al (2009) succinctly describe the motives for many teachers use of praise and rewards; to decrease inappropriate behaviour and increase appropriate behaviour. Praise and rewards can act as positive reinforcement; you do something good, get something you like, so you are more likely to do it in the future. So these studies show that praise and rewards are heavily used in classrooms and it does appear to be very effective at shaping behaviour. Van der Mars (1989) found that verbal praise could be effectively used to reduce off-task behaviours. This shows that if you praise children for doing the correct work and avoiding distractions, then they will become more focused on the task and engage with it better. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) emphasise the effectiveness of using praise and rewards in a classroom setting, but highlight a few areas of concern; Praise must be perceived as sincere, must be attributable to controllable causes and must promote competence without an overreliance on social comparison. This brings into question the ‘praising everything’ issue, for example a certain degree of sincerity will be lost if you overuse praise. Praising the right thing is also crucial; if a child receives a reward for something that required little thought or effort then they are less likely to positively engage with material and try, as they can get the same good feeling and don’t have to work as hard. So whilst rewards and praise are effective, they should be used with great care to ensure that the correct behaviours are rewarded; behaviours that encourage learning and engagement.

So there is a lot of evidence to show that rewards and praise can be used positively, but care must be taken. But what are the negative implications of using praise? Cannella (1986) suggested that the whole use of rewards and praise, to shape people’s behaviour, actually stifles autonomy and creativity, as children just become focused on rewards. This makes me think about the whole ‘appropriate behaviour’ thing involved in reinforcement. Who defines what is ‘appropriate’? I guess the teacher does, but works off socially acceptable principles. But then won’t this just create a bunch of robots that are experts in pleasing that particular teacher, yet can’t work creatively? Just a thought. Then we get on to an interesting study by Deci (1971). He found that external rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. This appears to confirm fears that giving rewards and praise causes children to value them the most, above actually learning or enjoying the topic, and that behaviour will be shaped to achieve the most rewards, instead of learning. This is a very controversial finding, and has produced a rather entertaining (well, to me) back and forth. Cameron and Pierce (1994) did a meta-analysis, and found that intrinsic motivation appeared to be unaffected by outside reinforcement, essentially saying that what Deci (1971) found was completely wrong. Deci et al (1999) were quick to defend their honour and refuted the meta-analysis, saying many things were overlooked or confused, and that intrinsic motivation WAS affected by reinforcement. Cameron et al (2001) and Deci et al (2001) then, at the very same time of spring 2001, both produced opposing papers, saying that their view was correct. This shows just how controversial and complicated the area currently is, and that all results need to be viewed with a sceptical eye, in order to not make potentially dangerous errors in employing rewards and reinforcement.

Overall, there do appear to be real world benefits for employing rewards and reinforcement, such as praise. However their use needs to be carefully evaluated and selectively used. Effects on the student’s motivation remains highly controversial with some arguing that reinforcement can reduce a student’s intrinsic motivation for work.


Madsen et al (1968)

Partin et al (2009)

Van der Mars (1989)

Henderlong and Lepper (2002)

Cannella (1986)

Deci (1971)

Cameron and Pierce (1994)

Deci et al (1999)

Cameron et al (2001)

Deci et al (2001)

Negative Suggestion Effects

     I think we have all been there in a multiple choice exam, when you are intently staring at 2 possible choices and both of them seem right, yet you know one of them isn’t. Many people would just choose one and then accept it as the right answer. Quite often in education you will receive feedback on these types of exams in the form of marks, but not on which questions you got right or wrong. This can lead to you believing what you put was right, when in fact it may have been wrong. This also occurs in SAQ’s where you convince yourself what you are writing is correct. This is obviously a very big issue, especially when you consider my last blog, which outlined how frequent testing was the best way to learn.

     Hammersley and Read (1986) looked at the effects of false memories on recall of stories. They found that when a person was presented with false information about a story they just read, they would often include it as what they thought was correct information when later recalled. This effect was especially prevalent after a delay. This shows that humans have a tendency to be influenced by false information just by being exposed to it. Brown et al (1999) looked at this negative suggestion effect. They outlined how in multiple choice exams you receive exposure to the wrong answers and incorrect information, which then distorts your memory for the correct information; participants scored lower on tests when they were exposed to misinformation.  Toppino and Luipersbeck (1993) looked at a different aspect of this effect and found that participants were more likely to believe information that wasn’t true, if they had seen it on an exam before. This highlights the risk there is in multiple choice exams, as by simply having incorrect answers there can negatively influence the person taking it.

     There are ways to try and combat this effect, such as giving feedback. LeClercq (1999) explains how feedback is important, as you can use it to learn and build on your own knowledge. This feedback would allow you to identify areas where you are incorrect so that you can get a better understanding of the correct information. McClusky (1934) mentions, however, that identifying false information does not mean that it can be easily amended. This is especially a problem when you look at studies such as Mellis (2008), which show that once information has been ingrained it is very hard to then unlearn it. This suggests that feedback needs to be prompt, so any misinformation can be unlearned before it becomes an issue. Sproule (1934) supports this, and mentions that allowing children to immediately correct their wrong answers offsets the negative suggestion effect. It is important to note a number of observations made by Roberts and Ruch (1928); in order for negative suggestion to be a serious problem, it needs to be deep and permanent. In other words a child needs to fully understand and believe the wrong information, for it to become a problem with their education and learning. This is very rarely the case, however still remains an issue. It was also noted that if there were negative effects from false statements, there would also be positive effects from true statements. You are likely to be influenced by all the information you see on the test paper, meaning that whilst you may be influenced by the incorrect answers, the correct ones will also influence you. Whilst this may offset the negative effect somewhat, it does not address the fact that you still may be learning incorrect information. This again highlights the need for good feedback, as it would serve to solidify correct answers, and create opportunities to unlearn false information.

     When taking spaced schedules of testing into account, it is clear that frequent tests are much more effective than big final exams. However this brings about problems, as feedback would need to be both prompt and comprehensive. If it isn’t, then there is a risk that students will remember incorrect answers and information and believe they are true: the negative suggestion effect. The range in dates of the studies also shows that it has been a consistent problem over time, but has not received that much attention.


Hammersley and Read (1986)

Brown et al (1999)

Toppino and Luipersbeck (1993)

LeClercq (1999)

McClusky (1934)

Mellis (2008)

Sproule (1934)

Roberts and Ruch (1928)

Spaced Schedules of Testing

Exams are an inescapable aspect of education and learning and by third year at university we are all familiar with the routine; spend the year (/semester) learning about stuff, and then have a big final exam at the end. This is particularly prevalent in GCSE and A-levels, but is it the most effective way or learning and testing knowledge? Research suggests that this is not the best way and instead having frequent tests that are spaced out over time and so not just straight after the material has been learnt is far more effective.

Final exams are standard practice in many educational establishments all over the world. The current structure, such as in GCSE’s and A-levels, is that the material is taught throughout the year, and then at the end there is an exam on the subject. We have all found final exams to be highly stressful, and Sheppard (1996) describes how even when they are “at a distance, they serve merely to create the tensions which swell daily like the tides”, and how the “gravitational force begins to shake the whole place to pieces”. This usually results in a mad panic before exam periods, with many students ‘cramming’ just before the exam. Many of them achieve very good grades, and it is easy to understand why a teacher and student will look at good exam results and assume that the student knows and has a good understanding of the material. Cepeda et Al. (2008) outlines how these good grades can be achieved because the information is in a recent primary memory store. What is often overlooked is the fact that a short period of time after the exam, the student will undoubtedly have forgotten most of the material, as the information has not entered into long term memory. This is a major failing of the current education system, and justifies a feeling I’ve always had that people are taught to pass exams, not to actually get to grips and learn the subject (perhaps I will look into this in a future blog).

It is clear that big final exams have a lot of downsides, but is there a better way to do things? Dempster (1996) talks about how studying is effected by spacing. Basically, massed studying, or cramming, where a large amount of material is studied in a short time, is much less effective for memory retention than doing small bits every so often spaced out over a much longer time-frame. He later goes on to talk about how the same effect is seen with testing; having a massed exam is far less effective for memory retention than having smaller, but more frequent exams. Roediger and Karpicke (2006) also looked at the effect of testing on memory and found that frequent testing was not only effective in allowing a person to assess their abilities, but also improved memory, showing that frequent and spaced out testing is very effective. Dempster (1988) pointed out, however, that whilst it has been proven to be very effective it is not being utilised by educators. Whilst this is an old study, a more recent study by McDaniel et Al. (2007) shows that it is still not being applied. It is even suggested that educational research has largely ignored using testing in a classroom environment. Stein et Al. (2009) could suggest one reason why; implementing new paradigms and technologies in the classroom is a very big thing and requires lots of work and re-training. Whilst not explicitly saying that teachers are too ‘set in their ways’, it does point out that for a teacher to relearn their whole method of teaching would be very challenging.

Overall it is obvious that the current method of massed tests and studying is not as effective as using spacing. There are many reasons why it has not been implemented in schools and universities, but one reason has suggested that the sheer amount of work that needs to be put in to restructure and retrain teachers puts many people off.



Study Links;

Sheppard (1996)

Cepeda et Al. (2008)

Dempster (1996). Chapter 9.

Roediger and Karpicke (2006)

Dempster (1988)

McDaniel et Al. (2007)

Stein et Al. (2009)