New York Times advises that tests help you retain learning

john_smallPosted by John Kleeman

I’d like to draw your attention to a thought-provoking article in the New York Times earlier this week about the best way to  learn.

One interesting observation in the article is that although you might think going and staying at a quiet place to study is the best way to learn, this isn’t the case. It’s actually easier to learn if you move around to different places! It would seem that when the outside context varies, it’s easier to put on the neural scaffolding that helps retain something in memory.

And, mirroring papers by Dr. Will Thalheimer commissioned by Questionmark (see The Learning Benefits of Questions and Providing Learners with Feedback), tests also help the retention of learning. In particular the New York Times describes an experiment at Washington University in St. Louis where two sets of students studied a reading passage in different ways. One set studied it twice in back-to-back sessions, the other set studied it once and then took a practice test on it, within the same time. As you can see in the diagram below, students who studied only learned the information well at the time, but forget about half of it within a week. But those who studied and had a practice test, retained much more of the information.

Chart from University of Washington research paper, click to read paper

The bottom line from the research is that taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Tests don’t just measure learning: the act of taking a test helps you retain information you have learned.

2 Responses to “New York Times advises that tests help you retain learning”

  1. […] and take a test, you retain it better than if you just study. For an instance of this, see my earlier blog entry which includes the chart below from another paper. This chart shows that if you want to learn […]

  2. […] As you can see, the students who had taken a test got better results on average than those who hadn’t taken a test. This is expected due to the general principle that taking a test gives retrieval practice, which helps you to be able to recall things later and so helps learning.  This is similar to results I’ve blogged on elsewhere. […]

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