Want to remember? Take a test!

From the NY Times comes a summary of new research, published in the journal Science, about how to improve learning:

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The study found that “students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.” (The other methods were repeatedly studying the material and drawing detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning.) The research was conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. We had previously posted about Dr. Karpicke’s research in a review of study strategies last fall.

As the Times points out, Karpicke’s research doesn’t get into why retrieval testing can help with learning. A couple of psychologists interviewed for the article had some thoughts:

  • Robert Bjork, from the University of California, Los Angeles: “When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything – it’s simple playback. But when we use our memories by retrieving things, we can change our access to that information.”
  • Nate Kornell, from Williams College: “The struggle (of taking a test) helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning. You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.'”

We were particularly intrigued not so much by the improved recall that resulted from testing as a learning strategy, but with the outcome that the students who took a retrieval test after learning the information “even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.” Concept mapping, says Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, is considered the gold standard of learning.

The last thing most great educators would advocate for in our classrooms is more testing. So it will be interesting to see how this new research translates into the classroom. Says Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard quoted in the Times article: “Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”

For more thoughts from Be Amazing Learning on study skills, check out these previous posts:

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