Practice tests improve memory, researchers say

Oct 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.

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