Learn Better By Studying Less And Taking More Tests

If you really want to learn something, stop cracking those books as much and take more tests. That’s the upshot of new research published in the journal Science. In it they had students read a chunk of text and then take a test which required them to recall what they read. A week later, they showed a 50% higher retention rate on the information from the passage than students using other techniques. So if you’re paying for your kids to get tutored, make sure they’re having your child do a healthy mix of practice tests and not just studying.

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test [NYT]
Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping [Science]


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  1. Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

    Heh, I’ve known this for years. Studying and homework are complete crap; busywork to keep the children in line. Some of my high school teachers hated me especially for it; not completing day-to-day homework (not including projects and reports), not showing up to class, and still maintaining an 80%+ average.

    • RvLeshrac says:


      People “who don’t test well” simply “didn’t actually look at any of the material.”

      More pointedly, it would be nice if schools would recognize that different people learn in different ways, and offered multiple grading “plans,” so that those students who don’t give a rat’s ass about homework but can pass an actual skills test don’t lose out to Johnny Photocopier on the other side of the room.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        You addage is oversimplified. Some people just freak out at testing time even though they are booksmart. Some people question their own knowledge due to the stress.

        • Rachacha says:

          I was one of those people. I went to the school counselor who taught me some self hypnosis skills to help calm me down and introducing a trigger mechanism that could almost instantly bring me back to that “relaxed state”. I practiced the self hypnosis with her and on my own for several months and was able to reduce the time it took to get relaxed from about 45 minutes to about 45 seconds. If I started getting a nervous attack in the middle of a test, I would simply put down my pencil, close my eyes and activate my trigger mechanism and all of the nerves went away. 20 years later I still use the technique to deal with nerves or stress.

      • Cosmo_Kramer says:

        That’s a great idea, because in my job I don’t actually have to do any work as long as I can prove I know how to do it.

        Wait, what?

    • raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

      I used to peg teachers as “never assigns homework,” “assigns homework, forgets about it,” “looks at homework to see if it was done, doesn’t check it,” and “collects homework, checks it.”

      I hated that last category. But worst? When the assign-and-forgets suddenly remembers.

      • Rachacha says:

        I had a math teacher who would check to see that you had attempted to do all of your homework (1 point), some of your homework (1/2 point) or none of your homework (0 points). This teacher was also a fan of the Washington Redskins, so when we had not done our homework, we would take out ANY sheet of paper that had something written on it (History homework, love notes from the girlfriend etc.) and write “GO REDSKINS” at the top he would give us full credit for the homework.

    • MrEvil says:

      The only classes where Homework can be beneficial is Math courses or courses that involve alot of math work. At least then the homework gives you lots of practice on solving problems making it much easier to take a test where you aren’t afforded the luxury of being able to glance at practice problems. Otherwise alot of Homework can be pretty useless.

      Also, I think Homework should be taken more as a participation grade than the assignments being graded for being correct. (That’s how my DC Electronics instructor handled homework. It inclined me to actually do it) All too often I’d just not do homework because I didn’t have a good enough understanding of the material, so rather than waste effort to get a failing grade I just did something I’d rather do instead.

      • Coelacanth says:

        Ironically, math courses were those I usually did the *least* homework (read: virtually none). Additionally, it was rare when I wasn’t one of the top exam scores in said high school courses.

        Granted: math homework could be viewed as a series of mini-tests if done properly. However, it usually failed in high school math since until calculus, most of the exercises were derivative of each other, not really lending well to the recall process.

        Physics homework was probably my first encounter with “challenging” and worthwhile homework assignments.

    • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

      I agree. I hardly did homework in classes that required 70% of your grade being test results. I graduated with an 85% and a regents diploma. Not bad for being a slacker!

    • chaosnoise says:

      I remember those days. I once had to explain to the Math teacher why I didn’t hand in busy work. Since tests were weighted to 80% of our total grade all I needed to do was pass all but one of the tests for a passing grade in the class. She seemed horrified someone actually bothered to think about this. /shrug

  2. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Vindication! I have never been able to study, but I actually like taking tests. Trial by fire. I felt taking a test was a much better way to guage my learning than any other method.

    Nice to see that science agrees with me.

    • alana0j says:

      Oh I could’ve told anyone this back when I was in high school. I used to make my friends in pre-calculus crazy because they would freak out studying for a test, I simply paid attention in class and did my homework (most of the time) but never studied, I just couldn’t make myself sit still to study. And I always did better on the tests than they did :)

  3. CWG85338 says:

    Learning by repeatedly DOING? What a concept!

    • obits3 says:

      My Dad would tell me to learn something well enought that I could teach it. This is why study groups (where everbody studies and then comes to the group) work well. You have to teach each other using different learning styles, so you develop a deeper understanding of the subject.

      • tsukiotoshi says:

        Where study groups go wrong is when no one is sure what the answer is or when someone convinces everyone the wrong thing is right. I gave up on study groups in college when I was at one and everyone was absolutely convinced the answer to something was A and I kept saying, “Guys, no I’m positive it is B.” But, four against one I must have been wrong? Get to class, no, the answer was B.

        But, study groups do have their uses.

        • obits3 says:

          That’s true. There are two main issues:

          Slackers: When I was a freshman, three people wanted to do a study group. It ended up being me teaching them. I should have charged for my time, lol

          Group think: Sometimes you have to hold your ground. If I disagree with the group, then I would put a different answer on my work. Once, I had a physics class where the whole class could get extra credit if we could shoot the ball into a bucket in two tries. The WHOLE class got the problem wrong, so I raised my hand to correct it before we tried the test. Many people looked at me funny, but I convinced them to trust me and we got the extra points.

  4. Eyegor says:

    As a systems administrator, I’ve seen two kinds of people in the work force. Those who learned it the old-fashioned way and have deep understanding knowledge of internal architecture, accepted principles and practices, and those who get the job by being “certified” having passed some industry-standard test.

    The latter group is really good at taking and passing tests, but their knowledge tend to be far more shallow and usually aren’t good at dealing with situations they weren’t tested on. On the other hand, the “deep-divers” are able to overcome problems since they have a broad and deep understanding of the subject.

    Sadly, far too many HR people see a certification as an equivalent of RL experience.

    • RvLeshrac says:

      Except this article is about testing for factual information.

      It has nothing to do with practical application of skills.

      Studying doesn’t have anything to do with practical application, either, perhaps you took a wrong turn at the article on why certifications and degrees are bullshit?

      I mean, I agree with you when it comes to that, but these two topics don’t (shouldn’t) be intersect.

    • Eyegor says:

      Ack. I hit submit too quickly.

      The point I was trying to make was that the test-takers are really good at taking tests. While tests are a good benchmark of identifying weaknesses, tailoring a class to simply pass a test isn’t going to teach much beyond passing the test.

      I took a security+ training class back in October and they really only focused on passing it, not teaching anyone the details behind the areas we were going to be tested on.

      • raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

        My dad has an incomplete college education; he is very much a “learn by doing” so he got an entry-level temp job with the skills he already had, got hired and moved up the seniority ladder–to the point where he was working too much to finish his education, and getting paid as much as he would have if he did have that education. With the diploma being essentially meaningless at that point, he just dropped his classes and worked full-time.

        Problem being that when time came for lay-offs, they got rid of the people who did not have degrees. The industry he was in was very hands-on, where experience matters much more than certificates in the quality of work done by the employees, but HR doesn’t always get that.

        • obits3 says:

          This is why I think that the college system and the student loans that it creates are evil. How about this idea: Certifications, NOT degrees.

          Make the testing broader and more intense (20+ hours of testing) covering what would be taught in college that is relevant to the industry. This sound’s like a lot, but if you are willing to work, in theory, you could study on the cheap and it would take less time overall than college.

          Basic Idea:

          High School + A bunch of studying + 1 year paid internship + pass testing = enter career

          I think that something like this would be a better system. Also, we need to beef up our high schools so that a high school degree means something.

          • ARP says:

            I think England and other countries have a good idea. After HS, you either go to college or you learn a trade. So, after HS, you spend another 4 year going to college or your take another year to learn a particular trade. Community/Jr college was supposed to do that, but they end up getting bogged down in General Requirements, Electives, etc. just like any other college.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      What you just described was a lack of experience, not a lack of proper education.

      It’s the difference between learning by reading and learning by doing. Typically you gain a theoretical knowledge of how to do something and then you try to do it.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      And why do you assume it’s the HR person? They are simply looking for the requirement that the hiring manager asked for. You think an HR person knows anything about what’s required for a mechanic? Or a lawyer? No, they rely on the manager for the requirements.

  5. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    In college I took notes for focus, and never looked at them again. Did fine in English, Physics, History and more with this method. Differential equations required a bit more work though.

    If I didn’t take notes I would tune out through half the lecture…

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I was the same way — I always took an obscene amount of notes. I think my brain just needs to process the data in different ways to retain it.

    • ARP says:

      Same- I need to write things down to remember it. It also has to be written, not typed. So, some teachers would allow a one page “cheat sheet” usually for science or math clases. I would create the sheet, but then never used it because I actually remembered that information.

      I think that means I’m a tactile learner. [If you also frequent Gawker sites, insert “that’s what she said” joke here]

  6. Rachacha says:

    The question I have with this research is are they simply testing the data retention based on the test that was given, or do the students recall the entire lesson better even if they weren’t tested on it.

    As a very simplistic example, if the students read the nursery ryme “Jack and Jill” and were given a test that only asked “Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill?”, and then several weeks later, the students were asked what Jack broke when he fell down, would the students have better retention of the entire story, or only that Jack and Jill went up the hill?

    Does this style of teaching help with scientific deduction, inference and reasoning skills?

    • RvLeshrac says:

      WRT your closing sentence, I’m not sure what *ANYTHING* in our current educational system has to do with any of those things.

      • Rachacha says:

        I agree with you there. As a parent with two kids in elementary school, I see where teachers are teaching to pass the test, but in certain areas, my son, the older of the two kids takes an interest in a topic and actually reads and learns to form his own conclusions based on facts that he has learned. Granted, some of his conclusions are way off base, but I don’t expect too much from a 9 year old, I am just happy that he has developed the skills (either on his own or through a side effect of the teaching meathod) to develop and form his own conclusions and problem solving skills.

    • ARP says:

      Our education system is more and more designed to pass tests, not to teach analytical skills, science deduction, rhetoric, reasoning, etc. They need to be able to pass a standardized test, read bumper stickers as the basis for their moral and political philosophy, buy (and re-buy) cheap crap and then repeat what Glen Beck or Olberman are saying. That’s it.

    • Azzizzi says:

      According to the article, they didn’t ask any questions at all. They told the kids to write down everything they could recall. To me, this is completely different.

  7. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    I had the exact opposite experience in college. I always retained more from the classes where the final was the only grade. There was so much riding on the final that it was necessary to put a lot of work into keeping up with materials, synthesizing lecture & reading, etc.

    For the classes that had weekly quizzes during the labs/recitations, I could usually get away with only skimming the readings and minimal notetaking. The lectures would be fresh enough in my head, I could manage to do very well on a quiz that only covered that week’s materials.

  8. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    I had the exact opposite experience in college. I always retained more from the classes where the final was the only grade. There was so much riding on the final that it was necessary to put a lot of work into keeping up with materials, synthesizing lecture & reading, etc.

    For the classes that had weekly quizzes during the labs/recitations, I could usually get away with only skimming the readings and minimal notetaking. The lectures would be fresh enough in my head, I could manage to do very well on a quiz that only covered that week’s materials.

  9. GreatWhiteNorth says:

    When I was teaching I always advised students to do all the sample test questions they could find (in textbooks, old tests and group generated questions) in preparation for formal tests.

    With kids in university I advise the same with them and I am currently watching remarkable achievements as a result.

    Testing, be it practice or formal tests do help cement knowledge.

    • GreatWhiteNorth says:

      However, it should be noted that with the diversity of students and material to be learned no one should go away from this article thinking that tests are the only way.

      • Azzizzi says:

        I agree. Also, taking practice tests can also hurt you, especially when the practice tests themselves aren’t that great.

        I’ve had to take a lot of tests, most recently, I took the PMP exam. The practice tests available aren’t always great. In some cases, they reenforce learning the wrong answer. In some cases, they’re just wrong.

  10. ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

    My one issue with this is that tests cost. You don’t want to wait for a test to discover what you need work on when tests are so important to maintaining a grade. Practice tests aren’t easy to find sometimes, since profs and teachers I had used to guard them closely.

    A lot of people are pointing to this study and saying, “See I knew better than to study” but that’s not what the article is saying. It’s saying that homework should involve practice testing.

  11. Hi_Hello says:

    math class – I do the homework in order to pass the test.
    English – I barely read the book, just pay attention in class to pass the test… my English sucks…still working on it.
    science – labs make me learn stuff

    • RvLeshrac says:

      If “read the book” is how you learn English, I don’t know how that’s going to work out.

      What I’m saying here is that novelists rarely use proper English style or grammar.

      • Hi_Hello says:

        hahaha thanks, I didn’t know.

        I think my grammar if off because I was stuck in ESOL (before it became ESL) and they didn’t teach us anything. We played games…

        One time, a teacher gave us a grammar book, assigned one homework and then stop… never even collected the homework.

        I guess after 4th grade they don’t really care anymore. I did learn to fix my mistake when writing essays in college but it would takes at least 2 hours to proofreader just to make sure my grammar was okay.

      • ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

        That’s not entirely true. Because of demarcations between dialogue and narration, and the examples of natural linguistic flow, reading teaches the “natural grammar” of the language, and formal grammar is often just a recursive rationale for natural grammar. In other words, we make the rules before we write them down, and getting an instinct for the language is extremely helpful. I never studied for grammar tests because I was well-read enough that I understood grammar intuitively the first time a concept was explicated upon.

        (And yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition, because that’s not actually wrong.)

  12. katarzyna says:

    I wonder if this varies by type of learning. In my more difficult math classes, I definitely benefitted by doing practice problems. The process of learning history might be quite different than the process of learning DIFFEQ.

  13. u1itn0w2day says:

    Isn’t this why they put practice problems or questions in text books?

    But if students don’t take homework seriously I guess the word test motivates. Along with going over and thinking about the answers on tests.

  14. Erika'sPowerMinute says:

    Sure, but I feel compelled to point out that mastering facts does not equal dynamic thinking.

    I know we all know that, but judging by my experiences moving into a new school district this summer, having it be a complete disaster, then having to move my kids into a neighboring district (much better), not all educators know or care. Or are able to do anything about it, as in those who are leaned on hard to “show results” and “demonstrate progress.”

    • RvLeshrac says:

      What part of school, other than the single science class each semester, involves “dynamic thinking”? That’s what you should be teaching at home.

      Schools don’t want “dynamic thinking.” Schools want students who can regurgitate facts. “Dynamic thinking” gets teachers suspended.

    • daveinva says:

      Imagine: taking tests actually helps.

      But… but… this goes contrary to everything we’ve been told by the professional educator class for fifty years!

      I don’t know precisely where it took a turn for the worst, but the root of the problem is in treating children as miniature adults. Since what we value most in educated adults is an affinity for critical thinking, we figure we need to teach children critical thinking.

      News flash: you can’t *teach* critical thinking, you *learn* it. And teaching critical thinking to ignorant (in the definitional sense of the word) children is wasted effort: not only will the critical thinking not stick, the facts won’t, either. You’re 0-2.

      Look, nobody *likes* taking tests. No child ever liked their memorization tables, or trying to remember what happened in 1492, or learning the atomic weights on the Periodic Table. This stuff is hard, it’s frustrating, it involves repetition year after year after year, and it doesn’t pay dividends for literally decades.

      But it works.

      Having taught my fair share of 101-level college courses, I’ve lost track of how many terrible students I’ve met. They all failed upwards through high school, and perhaps 1 out of 10 display even the most basic aptitude necessary for intensive writing, mathematics or science at a college level. Heck, at a *high school* level. They were all used getting Bs if they turned in their work, and As if they did well enough to set the curve. Only a handful were used to having to literally *work* for their education.

      Yet they all felt entitled to receive a college education– after all, their parents are paying for it, I worked for them, you see.

      Kid, you didn’t even receive a *high school* education, how am I supposed to give you a college one?

  15. GearheadGeek says:

    It sounds like what they’re saying isn’t “quit studying and take tests instead” so much as “add quizzes to your studying.” I guess that would make a less-interesting headline.

  16. Mr. Snerk to you says:

    I do not think there is any one system that will work in all cases for all people. We learn in different ways, some by writing everything down, others just by listening and yet others by visual examples. You may have had someone who appears not to be listening to you be able, when asked, to repeat verbatim what you have said and give a clear and accurate analysis of your intent.

    A balanced approach that incorporates various means of presentation of material will have a more lasting and meaningful effect.

  17. Mr. Snerk to you says:

    I do not think there is any one system that will work in all cases for all people. We learn in different ways, some by writing everything down, others just by listening and yet others by visual examples. You may have had someone who appears not to be listening to you be able, when asked, to repeat verbatim what you have said and give a clear and accurate analysis of your intent.

    A balanced approach that incorporates various means of presentation of material will have a more lasting and meaningful effect.

  18. Papa Bear says:

    It is simple: repeated use of new knowledge will ingrain that knowledge. Not using it will cause it to be lost. The arguments from some that because they did better in classes where there was only a final because they had to cram for the final is moot when applying it to actual learning and retention. That is called teaching and learning to the test. They did better because they crammed and the info was fresh. The thing is, take that same test one year later with no warning and see how you do. You will probably retain less than 60% of the info. However, look to information that you were quizzed on regularly while in class and then take a test a year later. You will retain over 80%. Its just a simple fact. It is why kids who were quizzed regularly on multiplication and division tables are good at arithmetic and those that weren’t aren’t. BTW arithmetic and math are not the same thing.

  19. Mold says:

    80%=breathing diploma.
    Umm…isn’t this rewarding the behaviour of studying?

  20. Genesee says:

    What the “test” consisted of was this: “Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes.” that’s a quote from the NYT article describing the study. Writing an essay is in no way, shape, or form the same as a multiple-choice test. As for answering the questions at the end of the chapter–most kids can do that without ever reading the chapter, since textbooks are pretty much all the same. The order of the questions always follows the order of the subjects presented–just go find the write subheading and copy some sentences. The key here is that the “test-takers” were writing an essay without the material in front of them. To really learn? Quit studying and write an essay. From memory.

  21. qwill says:

    Maybe this will eliminate some of the nonsense passing for education nowadays. My kids spent way too much time in school coloring, concept mapping, keeping history journals, making power points, etc… And this continued through high school. I have always argued that these activities teach other skills but not the content they are intended to teach.

  22. u1itn0w2day says:

    Unfortunetly I think there are platitudes like “if you had done it right the first time” that prevent many egos from admitting they need practice including practice tests. Most people rather say they did well on there first attempt. But this doesn’t not allow for failure and how you react and adjust to failure ie fix your mistakes. This mindset plays itself out in life and the working world with incompetent work wether it be a contractor who messed up a job or white collar executive who is more interested in their career acting like they know when in fact they are crashing the company.

  23. 4Real says:

    this is true. I had a psychology teacher give a pop quiz everyday for the information she went over the class before. And I remembered more then the classes that I only have 3 tests in.

  24. JadePharaoh says:

    Heh. That’s exactly how I passed an important registry exam for work. I failed the first time, trying to remember a enormous encyclopedia’s worth of material. The second time, I took the practice test for it again and again until I could get 100% consistantly. I went back and passed the exam the second time.