How Practice Tests Enhance Memory

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Taking practice tests enhances learning by increasing long-term memory retention. This effect is known as the testing effect or retrieval practice.

Using practice tests allows students to become familiar with the format of the exam they will take on Test Day, which can reduce their stress and anxiety. It also helps them identify knowledge gaps that they need to focus their studying on.

Timed Practice

Research over the past few decades has firmly established that taking an online practice test improves learning and memory retention more than simply reviewing or rereading material. This benefit is known as the testing effect.

However, many of the prevailing studies on retrieval practice use binary dependent measures such as number of items recalled or questions answered correctly on a final test. Continuous measures, on the other hand, allow greater sensitivity in analyzing the strength and direction of memory errors.

We analyzed whether the type of practice, or the manner in which it was presented (free recall versus recognition), moderated the size of the testing effect. Participants either studied a set of words or alternated between restudy and practice testing (free recall or recognition) for one or three cycles. On a delayed final test, performance on measures of relational processing were greater for free recall than recognition practice. These results suggest that a key benefit of practice testing is the creation of more precise and informative intervals in memory.

Retrieval Practice

Researchers have discovered that re-experiencing material in the form of a retrieval test enhances memory more than just studying the same materials repeatedly. The study of how this testing effect occurs has revealed a number of important features that instructors should consider when implementing this strategy in their classrooms.

The most straightforward way to implement this approach is through frequent low-stakes quizzes (free response, multiple choice, or closed book). Students should be encouraged to write down what they know about a particular topic and submit the answers as quizzes. Feedback on these quizzes can come in the form of automatic computer reports, peer review and discussion in class or from the instructor.

A variety of experimental conditions have been used in studies on the recall enhancement effect of retrieval practice. For example, in one experiment, participants studied a set of words and images and then participated in either an active retrieval practice task or a no-retrieval control that involved simply sitting quietly and listening to a list of items. Those who engaged in retrieval practice showed better performance on the final test than those who did not. The authors also found that the stress of being tested did not reduce the benefits of the retrieval practice condition.

Multiple-Choice Practice

Over the past decade, numerous studies have investigated the benefits of multiple-choice practice tests over restudying. However, the impact of practically relevant moderators such as feedback and learners’ ability to retrieve tested content from memory (i.e., retrievability) has been underexplored.

To address this gap, we experimentally manipulated feedback in a realistic educational setting of a university psychology course. Participants were assigned to either a multiple-choice test with or without feedback and studied course material that would be later tested on a final exam.

After practicing the materials, participants took a stress scenario and then an exam. Students who used the multiple-choice test with feedback outperformed those who did not by nearly 25 percentage points, demonstrating the powerful impact of testing on learning.

In addition, our data suggest that providing students with optional multiple-choice questions is an effective way to enhance learning in real-world educational settings. Our findings support prior theory and research that suggests a metamemory benefit of practice testing in which students become aware of gaps in their knowledge through corrective feedback provided during the test.

Feedback

When you get feedback on your answers during practice, it enhances the impact of practice. That’s why it’s important to test often, and especially to use low-stakes tests. This helps students understand what they’ve learned and how much more work they need to do to master a topic.

A new theory of how memory works explains why testing is so effective. It posits that retrieval events improve storage strength by enhancing the neural connections needed to recall information. The stronger these connections are, the more likely you’ll be able to access that information later.

Researchers have found that even when the final retention test is given immediately after a practice session, the testing effect remains (Carpenter, 2009). However, when the test is delayed by a day or more, restudy has a similar impact on learning as testing does. It’s thought that this reversal is due to the semantic elaboration of the testing effect, which suggests that during a practice test, your brain generates semantic associations between words in the memory and these associations help you to retrieve the information during a subsequent test.

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