To learn more, take a test

To learn more, don’t study. Take a test, advises the New York Times.  College students who read a passage and took a test on the content, remembered 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who studied the material or drew “concept maps,” according to research published online in Science,

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

Students read about a scientific subject, such as how the digestive system works. One group read the text for five minutes, a second group studied the passage in four  five-minute sessions, a third group “arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.” The final group read the material and wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes; then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

A week later, the test takers aced a short-answer test on their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions. The other groups were more confident but less competent.

The second experiment focused only on concept mapping and retrieval practice testing, with each student doing an exercise using each method. In this initial phase, researchers reported, students who made diagrams while consulting the passage included more detail than students asked to recall what they had just read in an essay.

But when they were evaluated a week later, the students in the testing group did much better than the concept mappers. They 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.

Struggling to remember information helps people learn, psychologists say.

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  1. Wow. Fascinating. I guess I should start taking practice tests for my German class.

  2. Sounds a bit like programmed learning.

    We’ll now enjoy the programmed response to the mention of programmed learning.

  3. Wow, the New York Times took a completely different view from the research than I did. I read an article about it yesterday, where the focus was on the free form essay writing, not the test.

  4. This looks like what in Charlotte Mason circles is called “narration” – where the student retells (verbal or written) what he has just read. This act of retelling in one’s own words makes the information part of the student’s body of knowledge. I believe the technique is old – part of the way students used to be educated. Nothing new here. Just old methods being rediscovered by people who believe that history has nothing to teach them.

    That the students took a test is not the key here, it is that they had to retell what they read in their own words. I hope the people putting this research into practice will realize this and not come away with the idea that filling out a scantron test will do the same thing. Written narrations are also a great way for young people to develop writing skills.