Practice tests improve memory, researchers say

October 14, 2010

Although most people assume that tests are a way to evaluate learning, a wealth of research has shown that testing can actually improve learning, according to two researchers from Kent State University. Dr. Katherine Rawson, associate professor in Kent State's Department of Psychology, and former Kent State graduate student Mary Pyc publish their research findings in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of the journal Science.

"Taking practice tests – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something from – can drastically increase the likelihood that you'll be able to remember that information again later," Rawson said. "Given that hundreds of experiments have been conducted to establish the effects of testing on learning, it's surprising that we know very little about why testing improves memory."

In the article titled "Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis," Rawson and Pyc reported an experiment indicating that at least one reason why testing is good for memory is that testing supports the use of more effective encoding strategies.

Rawson offered this illustration. "Suppose you were trying to learn foreign language vocabulary," she said. "In our research, we typically use Swahili-English word pairs, such as 'wingu – cloud.' To learn this item, you could just repeat it over and over to yourself each time you studied it, but it turns out that's not a particularly effective strategy for committing something to memory.

"A more effective strategy is to develop a keyword that connects the foreign language word with the English word. 'Wingu' sounds like 'wing,' birds have wings and fly in the 'clouds.' Of course, this works only as well as the keyword you come up with. For a keyword to be any good, you have to be able to remember your keyword when you're given the foreign word later. Also, for a keyword to be good, you have to be able to remember the English word once you remember the keyword."

The research done by Rawson and Pyc showed that practice tests lead learners to develop better keywords. People come up with more effective mental hints or keywords, called mediators, when they are being tested than when they are studying only.

Explore further: New study examines memory, learning and aging

Related Stories

New study examines memory, learning and aging

August 20, 2007

Many older people complain about their memory as they age. With almost 35 million adults age 65 or older living in the United States, it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The Role of Sleep in Learning New Words

September 11, 2009

( -- A new study has demonstrated for the first time the importance of sleep in learning new words, and has shown the process has fast and slow components. The slow component is associated with sleep.

Student self-testing earns high marks as study tool

December 10, 2009

College students who pore over their notes again and again as they prep for finals could use their studying time more wisely, according to new learning research from Purdue University.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.