By Anna Rule
We all have the best of intentions when it comes to preparing for an exam, am I right? I mean – no one sees a test date on a syllabus and says, “Okay I’m going to wing that one.” We study, we prepare, and we pray to the founding fathers of Eureka College that they grant us some semblance of a working memory to recall the information when we need it. While our intentions may be great, we need to ask the question; are we preparing effectively? While we’re cramming our brains with information, how do we know it will stick?
In my years of studying for tests, it never occurred to me that re-reading my notes wasn’t sufficient. I thought that because I was going through the material, it would be fresh in my mind and “learned.” Some can get by on this wildly common practice. Others (like myself) are not blessed with the good memorization gene. So, what can you do? Test yourself. Of course, this is in conjunction with the wise words of Alan, trusty wolf-pack leader, to ‘check yourself.’ But for the sake of retaining information long-term – stick with the first recommendation and test yourself.
In all seriousness, our academic experiences thus far have allowed us to safely assume that everyone learns in different ways. Some are visual learners, some learn by doing. Some are extremely lucky and skim over a note or two and ace a test (I am extremely envious of those people). One review of how we learn carves out a solid list of 8 effective learning strategies backed by a ton of research (1) which you can view here. We’re going to dive into one of those 8. Let’s see how we can retain more by testing ourselves.
What Is It?
This theory of testing yourself is known as the Testing Effect or, “The finding that taking a test on previously studied material leads to better retention than does restudying that material for an equivalent amount of time.” (2) Evidence of the benefits of self-testing can be seen in research as far back as the late 60’s. (3) Oddly enough, that would have been when your grandparents were in high school and college! If only we knew then what we know today.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Re-reading your notes is not totally useless. After all, you are revisiting all the information again. When you re-read, you do in fact retain information but more so on a short-term basis. In other words, you forget it faster. If you want to retain the information long-term, you should practice retrieving it. You can utilize the testing effect by doing something like creating a practice test on materials you’re trying to learn, and then testing yourself. Research has shown that retrieval practice in the form of testing will produce better long-term retention. (4)
Another way the testing effect is even more amazing, is if you’re getting feedback on the practice tests you’re taking. (5) So, in other words, if you were to test yourself, and then grade said test, you’re really kicking it up a notch in the memory department. Just as you would study multiple times, or re-read more than once, it would also be to your advantage to test yourself repeatedly. The more you’re retrieving the information, the easier it will be to retrieve it the next time. (6)
Here’s a scenario you’ve probably faced before. You arrive to class, maybe you’re even early – feeling prepared. You sit down and in walks your teacher with a stack of papers. Perfect… Unannounced quiz! As you start to grumble and roll your eyes, you’re not alone. The thing about quizzes though – they’re exactly what the testing effect is all about. Quizzing is actually very beneficial. Especially if those quizzes are graded right away so you’re getting the added bonus of immediate feedback! (7)
Why does the testing effect work?
When we take a test, we are actively searching and retrieving the information from our memory rather than merely exposing ourselves to it by reading and/or re-reading. We’re forcing our brains to find it and bring it to the forefront, thus engaging in it and deepening our understanding of it. It’s known as retrieval practice… and it enhances the transfer of knowledge! (8)
What’s interesting about this theory is that we often overlook it. When a group of students was asked to compare whether they thought they would perform better after repeated study vs. retrieval practice, the majority chose repeated study. When in reality, the opposite was true. (9)
Put it Into Action
So now that you know about it, use it! Rest assured, there are a ton of free resources you can go to and create your own testing material. Websites like www.allthetests.com, or www.typeform.com/tests. My personal favorite is www.quizlet.com, which offers you a variety of testing mechanisms. You can do flashcards, write, spell, test, match multiple choice, or a combination of all of them with the ‘learn’ option. In my opinion, this is the way to go. Honestly, if you just do a quick google search there are a plethora of resources to choose from. But the age-old creation of paper flashcards is always a trusted route if you’re feeling old-school. So, the next time you’re preparing for a test, do yourself a favor and utilize the testing effect. At the very least – you’ll gain some new experience. However, I think you’ll be pleased to find that it really works. Remember these key things:
- Test yourself, before you wreck yourself
- Repeated testing for the win
- Feedback is critical!
The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll feel and that should also help to ease any test anxiety that you may be experiencing (a topic for another day). Happy testing, friends!
- Fiorella, L., Mayer, R.E., (2015, November 21). Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning. Educational Psychology Review. Advance online publication: Doi: 10.1007/s10648-015-9348-9
- American Psychological Association (2018). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved November 20, 2018 from https://dictionary.apa.org/testing-effect
- Allen, G.A., Mahler, W.A., Estes, W.K. (1969). Effects of Recall Tests on Long-Term Retention of Paired-Associates. Journal of Verbal Learning and Behavior, 8 (4), 463-470. Doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(69)80090-3
- Roediger, H.L., III, Karpicke, J.D., (2006, March). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17 (3), 249-255
- Kang, S.H.K., McDermott, K.B., Roediger, H.L., III (2007). Test format and corrective feedback modify the effect of testing on long-term retention. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19 (4/5), 528-558
- Karpicke, J.D., Grimaldi, P.J., (2012, August 4). Retrieval-Based Learning: A Perspective for Enhancing Meaningful Learning. Educ Psychol Rev. Advance online publication: Doi: 10.1007/s10648-012-9202-2
- McDaniel, M.A., Agarwal, P.K., Huelser, B.J., McDermott, K.B., & Roediger, H.L., III (2011, February 21). Test-Enhanced Learning in a Middle School Science Classroom: The Effects of Quiz Frequency and Placement. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/a0021782
- Roediger, H.L., III, Butler, A.C., (2001, January). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15 (1)
- Karpicke, J.D., (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (3), 157-163