Dominic Trevisan, PhD student, Co-authors Most Read Education Research Article in 2017

June 28, 2018

“I really fell in love with psychology and, as an undergrad, I had the opportunity to work with many professors in their research labs,” Dominic explains how he got involved in research. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Humboldt State University in California, Dominic attended many conference presentations and got involved with the publishing process. “By that point, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and do research in some capacity,” he explained. About a year after his graduation, Dominic was working with a professor at Washington State University who recommended the master’s program in Educational Psychology at SFU. After completing his master’s here, he decided to pursue his PhD in Educational Psychology. “I wanted to study in a heavily research-focused program, but with opportunities to conduct practical research in educational and other applied settings,” he recollected.

Last year, one of the articles that he co-author was featured as one of the most read Education research articles in 2017:

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659-701. doi:10.3102/0034654316689306.

This article is a meta-analysis of synthetized findings of previously published studies on testing effects. Dominic played a major role in writing the introduction, the methods and the discussion parts of this project while the lead author analysed and wrote most of the findings. The lengthy project took him about a thousand hours to complete and he was able to narrow down to 118 articles for this meta-analysis. “I had to extract information on methodological procedures and also the result that those studies found,” he explained.

The article reflects on how most university settings are centred on passive learning where students are sitting in lecture halls and listening to instructors. “They are the observers of all this information and then, when they go home and study, what they end up doing is reading all the material collected in class and they re-read them over and over again,” he commented. “We know from previous studies that this is the most common strategy these students use for learning, but we also know that this is the least effective learning strategy.” Mainly, the more you read something, the more familiar you become with that material, and that creates an illusion of mastery. “Students are surprised to see that by reading materials over and over again it doesn’t make them better at answering exam questions,” he stated.

There are several reasons why testing yourself when learning is so much more effective. First of all, students are particularly good at realising when they’ve learned some material well enough, when they mastered it. That’s why testing is so effective because when answering a test question, whether you get it right or wrong, it is a very good indication of whether or not you know that material well enough or if you need to spend more time with it or move on to other things. The other reason it is so effective is because unlike reading, which can be a rather passive learning strategy, taking a practice test is very effortful. “It is an active learning strategy that requires students to try to access information from their long-term memory to answer some type of practice test question,” he advised. Dominic also explained that one reason this strategy works so well is because learning is most effective when learning strategies are matching the actual assessment criteria. “If you know that you will be assessed on a subject in your class, you want to try to replicate those cognitive processes when you’re actually learning,” he adds. In sum, quizzing yourself is a good way to prepare for quizzes and tests.

Dominic also highlighted the benefits of this study to the educational community. First, students, knowing these findings, can focus on the quizzes and questions that are offered in text books as well as in supplemental materials online that ask questions about the chapters and the material that they are reading. “They can also create their own questions for example, using flash cards and things like that.” Not only students can capitalize on this study but teachers and instructors as well: “There’s also clickers technologies where instructors can post a question in a PowerPoint during the lectures and students can buzz in with their clickers to answer them,” he adds. Even without technology, Dominic offers some ideas: “teachers can do little things like if they ask a question in class, instead of calling on the first person who raises their hand and answers the question, wait to 5 to 10 seconds and during that little interval you have given all the students in that class the chance to attempt to retrieve that information from their long-term memory, so they can access rather or not they actually know they answer.” According to Dominic, the clickers also create low stakes opportunities. Clickers can help students who might feel anxious about answering questions in front of their peers and can motivate them to attempt to retrieve that learned information.

As an example of how these findings are effective in the classroom, Dominic brought in his own experience as a Teaching Assistant. In the Introduction to Educational Psychology class, students were expected to learn over 400 academic terms from their textbook. Therefore, creating very simple definitional quizzes for each one, was an idea based on this research on testing effects. “We actually compared items that were quizzed with those not quizzed and the quizzed items were answered more successfully on the final exam,” he illustrates. From his experience in the classroom, it seems that the students who spent more time interacting with the quizzes tended to do a lot better on the exams as well. “One key findings for the meta-analysis showed that testing works just as well in the classrooms as in the labs. This is an important finding because laboratory settings are not easily replicable in classrooms.” In addition, the testing effects work in every age group, even in very specialized education such as medical school.

According to Dominic, this article seemed to have a great impact within the educational research community because “there’s a lot of push back against testing and the use of this high-stake, standardized tests,” he described. “We are not advocating for standardized tests, but we are encouraging students and instructors to capitalize on low-stake tests as a helpful learning strategy.”

Dominic’s PhD research topic is related to the social and emotional development of children with autism. “My main focus is on how individuals with autism understand emotions in themselves and how that relates to the ways they communicate emotions verbally and non-verbally,” he explained. His dissertation includes three studies and the first one is a meta-analysis. In a smaller scale than the one in the article, it summarizes all the literature on how people with autism display facial expression. “This is one of the clinical features of autism, they express emotions differently. Because of these differences, it has implications for the social difficulties that they have,” he described. Dominic is working on the final revisions of his thesis.