Learning Information is a Reflective Process; Get Started with a Test!

A fascinating study has just been published in the journal Science regarding kinds of study strategies and their effectiveness in improving recall, or retrieval, of information later. An article on the study has been linked below and all quotes come from the linked text.

In brief, when compared to strategies such as repeated reading, cramming, or concept mapping, taking tests has proven to increase recall later. I find this terribly interesting because of the conclusion that making mistakes on tests leads the learner to revise their understanding:

The students who took the recall tests may “recognize some gaps in their knowledge,” said Marcia Linn, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “and they might revisit the ideas in the back of their mind or the front of their mind.”

When they are later asked what they have learned, she went on, they can more easily “retrieve it and organize the knowledge that they have in a way that makes sense to them.”

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

So, overconfidence about the quality of one’s knowledge leads to poorer retrieval, no doubt because the brain does far fewer reflective cycles over the information and is not forced to revise understandings for greater clarity or correctness, as it must after flaws or gaps are pointed out via a test. Of course, the learner has to experience the results of the test. As such, our practice AP tests are of much higher value in improving your knowledge of the subject than the final exams themselves, because you will be given the results and be asked to revise answers, consider errors, and generally revisit the material. In short, you will naturally reflect on the outcome and seek to improve. At least, this is my reading of this study.

Also important is the conclusion at the end of the article that this study doesn’t mean more standardized tests are needed in American public schools, for example. Those tests are generally worthless, as students never receive feedback on the test beyond a score. Sometimes, the lucky ones get a print out with numbers in categories. None of this leads the learner to reflect on the specific gaps in his or her knowledge, as determined by the test.  As such, tests useful for improving learning should be specific, meaningful, valid, regularly occurring, and (probably) fairly brief. Tests should be given back to the learner soon after their scoring, and the learner should be led through a reflective process by the instructor as much as possible. These are, of course, my conclusions and not necessarily the conclusions of the study.

What does this mean for the secondary school student? When you have an identifiable set of information to learn – say, a text like Slaughterhouse Five, in which recall of many specific details are necessary for writing and discussing, or dark and light photosynthesis, with myriad attendant details and process – find a partner and devise a little test for each other, focusing on the most important ideas and essential details, as you see them. Take, swap, and discuss. That process would utilize your study time much, much better than sitting in a room and rereading lines that flow in your eyes and out through your mouth, hanging open with boredom. Would any of you try that process?  I’m genuinely curious. Would a session on writing test questions be helpful as a study strategy?

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” – The New York Times

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