Monday, November 19, 2012

Test yourself to learn better

The school year is in full swing.  For students, school means learning and testing.  Most students believe that learning is the real reason that students are in school, and then they are tested to make sure that they learned what they were supposed to have learned. 

Because students believe that learning and testing are separate things, they often study inefficiently.  A favorite mode of studying is to sit down with a textbook and notes and to read over the chapter and class notes.  Once the material looks familiar, students assume they are done studying.

Growing evidence from a variety of researchers including Robert Bjork at UCLA and H.L. (Roddy) Roediger at Washington University suggests that one of the most effective ways to learn new material is to test yourself on it. 

Ideally, you start with some learning experience.  Perhaps you go to a lecture or read an article.  Then, rather than just looking over the material again some time later, actually give yourself a test.  Ask yourself questions about the material you are learning and try to formulate your own answer.  When you are tested on that material again later, your performance will be better than if you just looked the material over again and thought about it.

A paper by Vered Halamish and Robert Bjork in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition describes a number of the advantages of studying by testing yourself over traditional methods of studying.

The authors point out two key benefits of studying by testing.  First, the longer the delay between studying and testing, the bigger the advantage for studying by testing rather than traditional studying.  When the test happens immediately, then there is no big difference between the two types of studying.  When the test happens days or weeks later, though, there is a big difference between these conditions.

In addition, the harder the test, the bigger the advantage of studying by testing over studying in the traditional way.  If the test questions can be answered just by recognizing the correct answer, then there is less of a difference between the types of studying than if the test questions require the student to construct an answer.  That is, studying by testing has a bigger advantage over traditional testing for essay questions than for multiple choice tests. 

In order for studying by testing to be effective, though, it is important that you actually remember the information that you’re studying.  When you test yourself, you are asking yourself questions about the material.  (Many books even have sample questions you can use.)  The testing effect works because you successfully get to the information in memory, and that makes the memories stronger and easier to retrieve later.  

Another reason why studying by testing is effective is that it is always best to study in the way that you are going to be tested.  That is, the more that the study situation resembles the testing situation, the more likely you are to remember the information during the test. 

Putting this all together, then, when you have to learn something new, you must be active about it.  Don’t read new material passively or just listen to someone give a lecture.  Instead, after you are exposed to something, test yourself on it.  It takes some effort to succeed at a test you give yourself, but that effort will be rewarded down the line.

Finally, this works even if you’re not in school.  Whenever you are in a position where you have to learn something new, don’t just study it.  Test yourself.