How the “Testing Effect” helped my students succeed

When I was in my first year of teaching middle school Spanish I struggled with remediating vocabulary. I had a rule that any student who scored below a 60% on a weekly vocabulary quiz had to come to coach class to review the material and retake the quiz. I would give them as much time as they thought they needed, then allow them to try the quiz again. Yet, the results the second time were often worse than the first.

Cuerpo Humano

Body parts study guide. By having the definitions so readily available, I accidentally made it harder for students to take advantage of the “testing effect.”

In December of that first year, one of my students taught me how to fix this problem.
She typically did fine in my class, but had failed a vocabulary quiz on the parts of the body and came to coach class to retake it. She spent 15 minutes reading over our guided notes: a picture of a girl with 12 body parts labeled in Spanish. She had gotten 7 correct on the original quiz, so she only needed to learn 5 more. After about 15 minutes I asked if she felt ready to try the quiz again. With a worried expression on her face she shook her head and said she didn’t know any more words than she did before. In fact, she might know fewer words now because they were all getting mixed up. At that point (I’m embarrassed to say it took until December), I asked her how she was studying. She told me that she was just reading the words and trying to remember them. I hadn’t taken any education classes yet specifically on vocabulary strategies (I have since then and it was very helpful!), so I just used common sense to figure out that the problem was most likely the fact that she wasn’t actively quizzing herself. So, I gave her a blank copy of the quiz and asked her to label all the body parts she definitely knew. Next, I asked her to try one of the body parts she felt less confident about. She wrote her best guess, then I had her check her answer and make a correction. After she had completed the whole paper, we tried again. This time she got more words right away and we repeated the process with her guesses. After helping her ‘quiz’ herself for about 10 minutes, I gave her the real quiz – she got a 100%. In fact, the next week she got 100% again. She finished my class with an A, the best grade she had ever gotten in a language class.

What was the point of this story? I had used every kind of presentation method I could think of to address every possible learning modality (visual aids, graphic organizers, mnemonics, Total Physical Response (TPR), games, realia, stories, you name it I tried it) and yet my students were still struggling with vocabulary. It might just sound like my students needed more reps: trust me when I say they had PLENTY of reps. In fact the second student had probably practiced dozens of reps during those first 15 minutes and yet she knew FEWER words than before she started. Why is that? It has to do with something called the “testing effect,” the theory that people recall things better when they have to try to produce them instead of just ‘studying’ them. It turns out that attempting to retrieve a memory (in this case a Spanish word) has a much stronger effect on long-term retention of the memory than even prolonged periods of study. This holds true even if the retrieved memory is incorrect (i.e. if the student mixes up pie and pierna she is still learning their meanings more effectively than if she had read the words and their meanings several times correctly). Of course, if the retrieved memory is correct, the effect is further enhanced. So, for my students taking the quiz was even more important for long term retention than the time they spent studying!


Interactive Word Wall

So, how did I apply this in my classroom? Well, for one, if a student came to retake a quiz during coach class, I insisted that they take practice quizzes before the graded retake. It helped a lot. In class, I spent more time on retrieval practice than I had before. That helped a lot too. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing practice quizzes in class, because it’s boring and not communicative. But, I found other ways to help my students practice active retrieval. For example, after briefly introducing a new vocabulary list and the TPR motions for each word, I would have students close their eyes and try to do the motion for each word as I called it out. After every student attempted a motion, I would correct as needed – but by having them close their eyes and act it out, I was forcing them to attempt to retrieve the information themselves first. We played vocabulary games. I even started adding random slides to my lesson with some pictures of words we were learning or needed reviewing and then called on random students to identify the word in Spanish. It worked great! My students did much better during the spring semester than they had in the fall, and by the end of the year they were all able to ROCK our city-wide final exam.

But, all that retrieval practice took a ton of time out of my lesson – time I would have preferred to spend engaging my students in interpersonal and presentational communication. What if there were a way for students to study using active recall more efficiently? What if, instead of calling on random students, every student had an opportunity to practice at the same time? That’s why we decided to build ClassTracks, an online tool for vocabulary practice that allows teachers to upload their vocabulary list and then helps students study using research-based techniques. It’s free to try at We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback! email us at

4 Tips to Help Students Problem Solve in the TL

Here I want to expand a little bit more on one of the tips discussed in the blog post about ways in which teachers can help students reach elementary proficiency in a year. Being able to problem solve in the TL is a pivotal skill for students to learn. But what are some strategies that you can use to help students develop this ability? Below are 4 tips to help your students learn how to problem solve in the TL.
analysis problem solution pic

1. Give students a questionnaire at the start of the school year:questionnaire 2

Creating an engaging questionnaire for your students in the beginning of the year will enable you to learn the problem solving areas in which individual students struggle. The questionnaire should be in the native language and give students a variety of scenarios to try and solve. The questions on the questionnaire should get students to evaluate a problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and identify what knowledge or tools are necessary to accomplish a task. For example teachers can ask questions like: “How would you explain to someone how to tie their shoes?”, and “If you had to teach an exchange student about a unique American holiday, how would you teach it and why?”. Here is a Critical Thinking Sample Lesson and here is a Critical Thinking Exercise.

2. Create fun and appropriately leveled problem solving exercises in TL:

Before undertaking this activity make sure your students have enough vocabulary in their back pockets. The more words they know that describe a specific person, place, thing or idea, the better your students will be able to successfully complete this exercise. The possibilities are limitless for what you can come up with for this exercise. Ideally after a few practice runs, youcan begin to grade students. The scenarios should get more difficult as the semester or year goes by. If you need to get your creative juices flowing here is an SampleExerciseinTL and Example TL Scenarios.communication

3. Learn not to engage in over correction:

The one thing that can really demotivate students is when a bad examteacher engages in too
much correction. So instead of lots of correction during the exercise, it may be beneficial to give an overall assessment at the end of the skit. Giving students feedback like th
e picture at the right is unhelpful. Also it’s probably a good idea not to make corrections in red for certain grade levels. However, if you want to give individualized assessments for each group member feel free to do so. You will have to find the right balance for your classroom environment.

4. Encourage persistence:

Practice makes perperseverancefect! For some students this exercise may be extremely challenging. One way to encourage persistence is to celebrate class milestones with prizes or treats. If your students thrive best when given incentives, take advantage of them to get students to persist in their foreign
language journey.

5 Language Activities to Beat the Summer Slide

Check out this post on what causes students to lose language skills during summer break, then read these 5 ideas to increase students’ exposure to the TL and help them retain their skills over the summer.


1. Change the Native Language (NL) Settings to the TL

Tablets, phones, computers, social media websites, and other apps allow the user to switch the language settings. Changing the language settings forces the student to communicate in the TL, and also enables the student to learn new vocabulary.

different mediums

2. Interact with the TL in Different Mediums

Foreign language teachers should encourage students to remain exposed to the TL by listening to music or podcasts, reading magazines or books, and watching familiar programming with no subtitles. For example, allows users to watch live TV from anywhere in the world. You can also create a playlist on Spotify and share it with your students, or encourage them to make their own playlist and share it with you.


3. Practice Communicating in the Foreign Language

If your student is able, encourage them to enroll in a summer language course. Another alternative for those who can’t afford a language camp is to find a local community center or group to practice with other learners. However, if a student simply cannot commute anywhere and has access to internet they can use websites like to practice communicating with a native speaker.


4. Write in the TL

Encourage your students to keep journals so that they can practice vocabulary and grammar over the summer. Ask your students to write weekly journal entries and then turn their summer highlights into a fun project to present during the fall. One great website where super dedicated students can go is, where students can write entries in the TL and then a native speaker corrects grammar and spelling.


5. Be Creative and Have Fun

Keep in mind that assigning drill worksheets and “busywork” almost never has the desired effect. If you give students the flexibility to do fun activities, they are more likely to engage in TL learning over the summer. Giving students options to create posters, music videos, presentations, or discuss a topic of interest can make a big difference.Tell them about websites or apps like ClassTracks where they can practice vocabulary in a game-like web app.