Blog Post

Grade Smarter

Testing to improve learning

So midterms or final exams will be here before you know it. What’s the best way for your students to study for long-term retention. You might think that they should highlight their textbook or look over their notes from your lecture. It turns out, one of the most effective ways for your students to study is by testing. In other words, “testing is a powerful means to improve learning, not just assessing it.”

testing to improve learning

In a study by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, students who were tested after learning material significantly better long-term retention of material than students who repeatedly reviewed the material. In two experiments, students studied passages and were tested 5 minutes, 2 days, or one week later. “When the final test was given after 5 min, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence in their ability to remember the material. Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important for present purposes—serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.”

Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important for present purposes—serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.

When we read a textbook chapter or re-read our notes were engaging with the material in a relatively passive way. Actively thinking about the material increases the likelihood that we will recall that information when we need it later, for example, on a final exam. Researchers show that you should take the time to test yourself in ways that force you to struggle with the material rather than just focusing on plain recall. The benefits of testing are largest when the questions are complex and you really need to work to come up with the answer.

Okay, so testing can help you learn something well. For teachers, giving a practice test has the added benefit of helping your students learn. For students, you can give yourself practice questions to prepare exams, as well as other study strategies, were you actively engaged. For example, using flashcards, outlining, and re-writing down notes into your own words. Last, think of exams as an important learning opportunity, and after an exam encourages students to review their exam to see what you got wrong.

  1. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science, 17(3), 249-255.