Testing & learning

Test-​​taking teaches stu­dents. This New York Times arti­cle describes research that sug­gests stu­dents learn more about a sub­ject by tak­ing tests about it than by study­ing it.

In the exper­i­ments, the stu­dents were asked to pre­dict how much they would remem­ber a week after using one of the meth­ods to learn the mate­r­ial. Those who took the test after read­ing the pas­sage pre­dicted they would remem­ber less a week later than the other stu­dents pre­dicted — but the results were just the opposite.

. . . .

Why retrieval test­ing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remem­ber­ing infor­ma­tion we are orga­niz­ing it and cre­at­ing cues and con­nec­tions that our brains later recognize.

When you’re retriev­ing some­thing out of a computer’s mem­ory, you don’t change any­thing — it’s sim­ple play­back,” said Robert Bjork, a psy­chol­o­gist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the study.

But “when we use our mem­o­ries by retriev­ing things, we change our access” to that infor­ma­tion, Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are prac­tic­ing what you are going to need to do later.”

This fits my expe­ri­ence. I took my share of stan­dard­ized tests in grade school (I remem­ber tak­ing the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in ele­men­tary school). The sub­jects were usu­ally not that inter­est­ing, but I would recall the sub­jects and silly lit­tle facts from them years later. One 7th-​​grade test included a pas­sage about beriberi—a dis­ease caused by a vit­a­min defi­ciency linked to eat­ing pol­ished (white?) rice—that I still vaguely recall today.