It turns out that taking a test isn’t just a teacher’s easy way of finding out where students stand or forcing them to read a chapter in a textbook. Testing might actually boost student learning and improve memory retention, according to a report cited in the New York Times.
The report, published in the journal Science, concluded that students who read a passage and were then tested a week later on what they read retained about 50% more of the information than students who used other, common study methods.
The other methods students used were repeatedly studying the material “cramming” and creating detailed diagrams of the information, connecting it all together in students own words and thoughts. Many teachers believe that the latter method is an effective method for studying because it forces students to create connections among information points. These two methods can give students the false belief that they know the information better than they actually do, according to the report.
The results surprised many cognitive psychologists and other educational scientists who long believed that creating connections among information was the best method of learning.
For the test, researchers placed 200 college students in two experiments, both experiments had them read several passages about scientific subjects, like the digestive system or muscle tissues.
In the first experiment, students were separated into four groups. The first simply read the passage in a five-minute session, the second read it in four separate, five-minute intervals, the third engaged in “concept mapping,” creating hand-drawn diagrams and bubbles to link the information they read in their own, personally-organized fashion, the fourth group took a “retrieval practice test,” where they free wrote every thing they remembered for 10 minutes. This group then reread the passage and took a second retrieval practice test.
All four groups were than given a short-answer test a week later, assessing how much of the information they could recall and the logical conclusions they could create about what they had read. The students in the fourth group, who performed the retrieval practice tests, outperformed all other groups.
The second experiment focused only on concept mapping and retrieval practice testing. Students were separated into two groups. One group created a concept map, and the other group took tests, asking them to recall information.
Similar to the first experiment’s results, the students who took retrieval tests recalled more information a week later, even when they were asked to draw a concept map from memory.
Cognitive psychologists cannot exactly pinpoint what causes these results. But, many believe it’s because taking preliminary tests gives our brains practice. Our brains can create contextual cues and patterns for remembering information during the preliminary tests, making recall easier because the brain can then remember the cues and the patterns, which can then lead to remembering the information itself. Then once the second test is administered, our brains can easily recall these patterns or context cues because they were previously in our minds.
These results have practical applications as many teachers administer quizzes or practice tests before larger, more-weighted exams, or even when teachers administer mid-term exams then final exams. Students who were previously tested on material will be able to remember it more effectively when they are tested again.