Testing for a Test: Insights From a New Study

As a student, you've probably spent plenty of time studying for exams by reviewing notes and assignments. But have you ever thought that test-taking itself might be a helpful exercise to prepare? The results of a new study suggest that practice tests can be an effective learning tool.

test anxiety

Retrieval Practice Proves Useful

Reviewing class notes and reading textbooks are common methods of study. You may also be familiar with idea mapping, a process that involves drawing diagrams and connecting ideas to reinforce understanding. These strategies are widely used by students to learn material - both well in advance of, and right before, tests. But are these study habits really the most effective way to prepare for exams?

A new study, published in the journal Science, suggests that these methods might not be the most productive means by which to learn information. Researchers found that concept mapping and content review were the most popular strategies among students. The study showed, however, that answering test-style questions about content was a more effective way to reinforce learning. This suggests that practice tests and self-quizzes requiring recall of subject matter may be more effective preparation for exams.

Confidence Isn't Always Key

Research outlined in Science revealed something else about test-taking: Feeling confident that you know material doesn't doesn't trump effective preparation when it comes to performing well on exams. In the study, a group of students using traditional review methods felt confident about taking a test. A second group prepared for an exam with a practice test - or the recall method of study. Students in in this latter group felt notably less optimistic about how they would fare on the exam.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the students who felt less confident generally ended up performing better. The recall method of study produced results about 50% better than content review and concept mapping. Research revealed that studying through recall can help students identify areas where they need to improve or deepen their understanding. This isn't always the case with review, where you don't actually test your knowledge of material. In fact, how well you've retained information doesn't become clear until you sit down for an exam.

testing strategy

Give It a Try

Frustrated by your inability to remember information for tests? Consider changing up your study habits. If your usual routine involves reading over class material and notes, try mixing in some practice testing. You might make flashcards with questions featuring content you're studying. If you have old homework assignments with questions, use them to create a mock test.

You can even turn this testing-to-study method into something that would work for a group. If you have a study buddy, come up with quizzes to swap for test prep. Doing a practice run might help you feel more relaxed going into a big exam. And knowing that you can answer questions on material could be the confidence boost that you need to focus on the task at hand.

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