Why Testing Knowledge is Not Just Regurgitation

A photograph of a row of science books sitting on a shelf.

Some educators suggest that student responses to selected response items like multiple-choice, short answer, and sentence completion (fill in blank) are just an exercise in regurgitation of knowledge of facts, terms, and names. These same educators often use the  term “regurgitation” in a derogatory way to argue that what should be tested are only higher order thinking skills like reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving by using some form of written response. From a science of learning view, what is being “regurgitated,” or more accurately, “retrieved,” whether factual knowledge or thinking skills, is information stored in the brains long-term memory neural patterns. The benefit of this retrieval, or recall, is that with each “regurgitation,” or recall, the memory gets stronger. What is questioned is the value of testing for knowledge of particular vocabulary words, terminology, and facts. Critics who argue that what should be tested is higher order thinking rather than factual knowledge often forget that to do higher order thinking, such as critical thinking, the student has to first know what the student is being asked to think critically about (Willingham, 2007).

Knowledge versus Knowing

Knowledge comes from acquiring information. Knowing comes from ownership and use of what was acquired. Each time a student recalls knowledge, as on a quiz or via self-quizzing, it reinforces the neural network associated with that knowledge. When a student applies the knowledge, then it has moved from knowledge to knowing. Testing the knowledge repeatedly helps ensure that the knowledge can be recalled when needed which is crucial to higher order tasks such as reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Why Testing for Vocabulary and Terminology is Important

 Vocabulary is central to learning because without sufficient vocabulary students cannot understand others or express their own ideas or talk in the language of the content area. Folse (2004) stated that: “Learners who know more words are able to use those known words to learn even more.” Wilkins (1972) wrote that “…while without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” A strong knowledge of vocabulary and terminology reduces ambiguity and increases clarity in what we wish to communicate.

Using Factual Knowledge

Factual knowledge consists of the basic information a student needs for a particular discipline and to solve problems in that discipline. The knowledge consists of terminology and specific facts in the discipline. To build skills, the student needs to utilize factual knowledge to address two other types of knowledge: conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge. Conceptual knowledge consists of the interrelations among the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together (Anderson et al., 2001), including knowledge of categories, principles, and models. Procedural knowledge is information the student will need to accomplish certain tasks and participate in certain activities. Factual and conceptual knowledge constitute knowledge of “what,” and procedural knowledge constitutes knowledge of “how to.” Factual and procedural knowledge constitute low level knowledge whereas conceptual knowledge constitutes high level knowledge (Shama, 2018).

Specialist Knowledge

Terminology is linked with specialist knowledge and with the language used in a specialist area. For example, a good understanding of technical vocabulary is a requirement in the field of science, engineering, medicine, and other STEM fields. Students need to be able to work with technical language with ease and fluency to succeed in their professions. The arts, humanities, and social sciences also have specialized vocabulary. Specialist terminology could also include symbols, drawings, formulae, codes, etc. In other words, specialist communication is written in specialist language, which requires specialist knowledge of vocabulary, terminology, and facts. To make the knowledge available for recall from long term memory when it is needed requires retrieval practice. Quizzes, self-quizzing, and flash cards are some of the most effect ways to get vocabulary, terminology, and facts into long-term memory storage.


Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete edition). New York, NY: Longman.

Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Sharma, T. (2018). Knowledge Types Revised. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/doc/14554355/Knowledge-Types-Revised

Wilkins, D.A. (1972). Vocabulary and Its Importance in Language Learning. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/docs/books/bk_ELTD_Vocabulary_974