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Are You Studying Effectively? What Wash U's 'Science Of Memory' Tells Us About The Best Way To Learn

via Flckr/Caleb Cherry

In an era where high-stakes tests have increased concern over test anxiety and introduced debate over the merits of teaching to the test, it may seem odd to promote a teaching method called “test-enhanced learning.”

But according to research conducted by psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, the best way to improve learning may be taking more tests, not fewer. The researchers studying memory have found that incorporating quizzes and self-tests into the learning process increase the amount of material students are able to remember long-term.

“The act of taking a test, of retrieving information … that actually helps you learn it much better than if you simply re-read it again,” said psychologist Henry Roediger III, who goes by Roddy. “If you read stuff over and over, that helps you in the short term--like cramming---that helps you with the test the next day, but you won’t know the material a week or a month later.”

Since 2002, Roediger has been studying the effects of memory on learning with his colleague Mark McDaniel and other Washington University researchers. To help share their research with a wider audience, they partnered with author Peter Brown to write “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” The book was released by Harvard University Press in April.

Because taking a test requires students to retrieve information from their memory, it activates their brains in a different way than repetition does. Whether in reading, or taking a test, the act of retrieving information is a pillar of the learning method Roediger recommends.

Every few pages, you “close the book and say, ‘Okay, what did I just learn? How could I apply that to myself?’” explained Roediger. “The idea is to reflect on it, to elaborate on it, to connect it with what you already know, and that way it will more firmly embed it in your memory and make it easier to retrieve later.”

Applying the research in the class room

Social Studies teacher Patrice Bain has been using test-enhanced learning for years in her classroom at Columbia Middle School in Illinois. Roediger and McDaniel have worked with her and her classes in their research for 7 or 8 years.

“So much of this is counter-intuitive, but the research totally backs it up,” said Bain, “As a teacher too, you can have students come in and say, 'I studied for three hours last night, I’m going to ace this test,’ and you’ll grade it and oh my goodness, they bombed the test….When you’re able to help teach your students how to study, they’re not spending all their time studying what they already know, but they identify what they don’t know, and that’s what they study.”

One of Bain’s favorite teaching techniques is to cut up an assignment into slips of paper and put the paper into a bowl. Then she pulls out a slip and asks someone in the class to answer the question on it. After a few days, she’ll add those questions to a bigger bowl with more questions in it, so that students are quizzed on a wider range of information, including material covered further back in the year.

A student's perspective

Zoe Hejna was in Bain’s 8th grade social studies class and graduated from Columbia Middle School earlier this year. Hejna is such a fan of the study methods she learned in Bain’s class that she plans on using it throughout high school and college.

“It’s helped so much in my studying,” said Hejna. “I’ve used in my other classes, like English and math…it’s probably a style I’m going to use through the rest of my schooling.”  In particular, Hejna liked the practice of reflecting on what she knows and doesn’t know, called meta-cognition. She discovers what she knows and what she needs to study more by having her mother quiz her at home.

Still, all the additional quizzes and tests in class took her some getting used to.

“In the beginning, I went up to Mrs. Bain, I’m like Mrs. Bain I’m frazzled. She explained to me that this is to help you. This is to help you come time for the final exam,” said Hejna.

In Bain’s classroom, quiz-taking is a tool to prepare students for the final exam. Often the quizzes don’t count for a grade. But by making test-taking part of the every-day experience, the students are both better prepared for the final exam, and less anxious on test day, said Roediger.

In his research, Roediger found that 80 percent of students say their anxiety is less after experiencing test-enhanced learning. Students still take their share of high-stakes tests, but because they are accustomed to taking quizzes and tests, it is less stressful for them.

As an example, Bain pointed to the U.S. Constitution test eighth graders in Illinois are required to pass in order to go to high school. Almost 90 percent of her 185 students received an A or B on the seven-page test.

“I really attribute it to the methods they used to study,” said Bain.

Beyond test results, the benefit of basing learning on the science of memory is that what you learn stays with you, said Roediger.

“For too many years….the only reason you had [tests] was to measure what you were learning, kind of like a dip-stick you drop in the brain,” said Roediger. “But what we’re really hoping to do is to teach them things that they will be able to use throughout their lives.”

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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