Why Testing Matters: A series on study strategies and holistic learning

We’ve heard the phrase “study smarter, not harder” but what exactly does this well-intentioned platitude mean? Over the next few months, we hope to give you insight into scientifically backed study strategies to help you achieve your study goals. We are starting the series with “The Testing Effect” and what it means for you and how you can and should use it to retain information longer and ace that next test!

The Testing Effect 

Have you ever been told you should take one practice test a week to prepare for the ACT or the SAT? Or that you should quiz yourself regularly on material presented in your classes? Turns out, regular testing (be it self-quizzing or frequent assessments given by teachers) may actually be the ticket to better understanding and improved outcomes (i.e. better grades and scores). 

The testing effect is a rigorously documented phenomenon that gives insight into how our brains learn and retain information. In a study conducted by Roediger and Karpicke (2006), researchers studied the effects of testing on memory. Participants were asked to read a short passage. Then they were either asked to re-read the passage (study group) or were given a recall test (test group). These two groups were then tested on the passage three times: after five minutes, two days and one week. Unsurprisingly, the study group scored higher on the recall test given five minutes after the exercise. 

What was surprising, however, was that when these two groups were given the same recall test after two days, the test group recalled about 68% of the information whereas the study group recalled about 54% of the information. After one week, the test group recalled about 56% of the information, whereas the study group recalled about 42% of the information. 

Try it out!

So, what are the implications of the testing effect on your study practices? The study results referenced above indicate that testing frequently actually helps you retain information longer and may be the key to better standardized test scores and preparing for cumulative tests in school. Engaging in frequent recall practices can help you retain information you may have read. Try this quick and easy practice the next time you read something you think you’ll need to remember later for an assessment:

  1. While reading, underline one or two sentences that get to the core of each paragraph
  2. Then use symbols in the margins to indicate that you have a question, or new information has been presented.
  3. Once you’ve finished reading, see if you can write down a summary without looking at the text. If you have trouble with this step, this is a good indication that you need to re-read. If you are reviewing a science or math text, make sure you complete all the example problems. 
  4. Take a break! Spend at least 10-20 minutes doing something else to give your brain time to process the information you just took in.
  5. Now try and summarize the information you just read again or try to complete similar practice problems to the ones that you completed before your break. The same principle in Step 3 applies here: if you can’t summarize the reading or you can’t remember large parts of it, you’ll need to go back and re-read and then start back at Step 3. 
  6. Pat yourself on the back! You’ve just engaged in self-testing! 

Although reading is clearly an important part of learning, it is only one step in the process of retaining information. Without frequent testing or quizzing, information won’t get stored in your brain nearly as effectively as if you quizzed yourself. Try it out today and experience the testing effect for yourself! 

Next month…

In September, we’ll be talking about note-taking methods and how to implement them for various courses and learning preferences. Stay tuned!

Roediger, Henry L., and Jeffrey D. Karpicke. “Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention.” Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 3, 2006, pp. 249–255., doi:10.1111/psci.2006.17.issue-5.