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Testing effect


Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

Let’s say you have a big exam coming up and you need to review the material—what would be the best way for you to study?

Well you might think that you should re-read the textbook or look over your notes, but it turns out that one of the most effective ways to study is by testing yourself on the material.

In other words, the mere act of answering questions will strengthen memory—a phenomenon that is called the Testing Effect, or sometimes test-enhanced learning or retrieval practice.

This phenomenon happens for a number of reasons.

One is that active learning is better than passive learning.

When we read a textbook chapter or re-read our notes, we are engaging with the material in a relatively passive way.

We like to think that we are information sponges—that we absorb the knowledge as it passes by our eyes—but it turns out that real learning happens when we actively engage with the material—for example, when we think about how it relates to other material we’ve learned or are learning.

Actively thinking about the material increases the likelihood that we will recall the information when we need it later on—like on an exam.

In fact, the more actively you can engage with the material—the better.

Research has shown 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.

Another reason has to do with the dynamics of recalling.

In order to answer a question on a test you have to search through your memory and retrieve the answer, right?

Well, it turns out that—at least in one respect—your memory is more like a muscle than like a filing cabinet.

When you first rode a bike you probably fell a lot, and your movements were rough and wobbly, but with practice, the movements become easier and smoother.