Why frequent testing is good for you

08Mar10

xkcd - Students

Everyone hates this dream. I have this dream frequently, except it’s always a test that I’m writing. For most students, tests are a stress-filled nuisance and once the test is done, most of the knowledge acquired over the days, weeks, months in preparation quickly exits the brain and leaves the head (through the ears, if I’m not mistaken) with an audible *pppfffttttt*.

Testing tends to be stressful for a couple reasons. First, it provides a very slim margin of error. You only get one chance with a test, and if you muck it up? Well, too bad. In addition, if you screw the test up, that could be the end of your lifelong dream of becoming a INSERT YOUR DREAM PROFESSION HERE. Plus, failing never feels good.

However, there is evidence that frequent testing can actually help students learn: instead of learning the material to do well on a test (then promptly forgetting the material), students learn the material better by actually doing more tests. So frequent testing could be good for you. Which doesn’t bode well for those anxiety-filled dreams.

I started thinking about this after reading a recent article in Scientific American Mind. Briefly, the article suggests that students tested on material before having studied the subject matter retain information better than students who are not tested beforehand. The authors also suggest making the test so hard that the students will fail the test (although I’m sure the test would be hard enough given that they haven’t seen the subject matter yet). So it appears that people are more receptive to learning material after getting the wrong answer.

Similar studies have also looked at how testing increases the memorization of material. They found that frequent testing helped  subjects retain material better than subjects who were only tested on stuff they didn’t know (so once they got it right on a test, they weren’t tested anymore). So it seems frequent testing is the way to go.

Why does this seem to be true? Anecdotally, I have  a tendency to kick myself after getting the wrong answer, usually because once the solution is something easy I overlooked. In situations like these, I make damn sure I don’t make the same mistakes again (although I sometimes do anyway). Perhaps testing acts as a primer for the brain to switch on and say “OK Brain, time to start thinking”. Perhaps it’s the test anxiety that induces a chemical rush which gets your brain into “Start thinking” mode. (I know some of my terms are wishy-washy, but my neuroscience is a bit rusty).

My knowledge of neuroscience

So how can we practically apply this? Well, when studying, quizzing yourself frequently (and not peaking at the answers!) is useful. Testing yourself before you learn the material, while you’re learning the material, after you’ve learned the material, and probably a few more times after that, just for good measure.

As for classroom learning, the practice of pretesting, as well as frequent quizzes, is frequently implemented in colleges and universities through the use of clickers. These are little devices given to students to answer questions in a lecture. Here is an article which gives a summary of their use in higher-education. The neat thing about clickers is that you can keep track of the data and analyze it to see if the students are learning effectively.

If you’re lacking in clickers (and I don’t blame you, clickers can add up to a pretty penny**), I once had a teacher who made us fold a paper into quarters and write A, B, C and D on each quarter and we would display the answer we thought was correct, which gives the same idea as clickers. Even asking more questions in class (with or without the multiple choice quizzing) would be helpful. Doing this over different time-frames (daily, weekly, monthly) throughout a school term would likely be the best way to implement this, especially if the goal for the student is to do well on a final exam. But in a few years time, between anxiety-ridden test dreams, maybe the student will be grateful they didn’t hear the faint *ppffftttt* when they walked out of that exam.

** I had to buy a brand-new clicker for a class last term and I’ll likely never use it again. $40, and it’s yours!

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