I’d like to draw your attention to a thought-provoking article in the New York Times earlier this week about the best way to learn.
One interesting observation in the article is that although you might think going and staying at a quiet place to study is the best way to learn, this isn’t the case. It’s actually easier to learn if you move around to different places! It would seem that when the outside context varies, it’s easier to put on the neural scaffolding that helps retain something in memory.
And, mirroring papers by Dr. Will Thalheimer commissioned by Questionmark (see The Learning Benefits of Questions and Providing Learners with Feedback), tests also help the retention of learning. In particular the New York Times describes an experiment at Washington University in St. Louis where two sets of students studied a reading passage in different ways. One set studied it twice in back-to-back sessions, the other set studied it once and then took a practice test on it, within the same time. As you can see in the diagram below, students who studied only learned the information well at the time, but forget about half of it within a week. But those who studied and had a practice test, retained much more of the information.
The bottom line from the research is that taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Tests don’t just measure learning: the act of taking a test helps you retain information you have learned.