Home > Education, Memory > Why those who force you to take exams are not actually terrible people

Why those who force you to take exams are not actually terrible people

It’s not exactly a secret: when presented with the choice, students overwhelmingly avoid testing and exams like the plague. It’s not something we all met up and agreed upon; but rather a fundamental truth that we feel in hearts, bodies, minds and souls: we would rather get gingivitis than study for and take an exam. I’m sure many professors can begrudgingly attest to this.

However, like children that don’t want to eat their vegetables, we students can’t deny the overwhelming research that has shown that testing is, in fact, one of the best approaches to boosting memory. Unlike children that don’t want to eat their vegetables, though, I will not make you sit at the dinner table until you agree that you love taking tests. I will, however, provide you with several reasons why you should learn to love them (or even just kind of tolerate them), extracted from recent findings by Dunlosky et al (2013).

 1)   It’s all-inclusive!

Testing effects are not just characteristic of frantic undergraduate students. It has been found to be beneficial to all ages- children to elders alike (Dunlosky et al. 2013). So, thank your elementary and high school teachers for testing you and providing you with your basis of current knowledge, and look forward to all you will know as an adult thanks to your tests in college.

2)   Even if you have no idea what the test will be like, it’s bound to help you!

If you test yourself on material, you will be encoding some sort of information in your brain that is going to help you. Studies have shown that even if the practice test is multiple choice and the actual test is short answer, the practice test still helps more than just studying (Dunlosky et al. 2013). So, even if the practice test is totally different from the actual test, you will still see improvement in memory and understanding.

3)   Testing helps all sorts of learning!

It seems pretty intuitive that if you practice-test yourself on explicit information or facts, you’re going to remember them better down the line. However, studies have shown that practice testing also helps improve conceptual understanding of material (Dunlosky et al. 2013). So, testing helps on both deep levels of comprehension, and shallow levels of just memorization.

4)   A practice test will be relevant no matter what you learned or how you learned it!

It’s true. Research has shown that testing effects are present in a wide variety of situations. As predicted, it is beneficial when you are trying to encode factual information, general knowledge, vocabulary, etc. However it is also beneficial when you are trying to remember information that you once read in a book or a journal. It’s even beneficial when you’re trying to remember something about a movie you watched one time. It’s also been shown to be helpful in basically almost every category of information under the sun; psychology, history, science, language, bat echolocation, the big bang theory, shoe tying, arctic exploration, toucans, etc. (Dunlosky et al. 2013). No matter how you learned it, why you learned it, or what you learned, a practice test will help you.

I know by now you must be sold on this idea and are asking yourself aloud “Wow, how can I best use this amazing tool!?” Ignoring the fact that talking to yourself is generally frowned upon by society, I will tell you.  The first way to maximize the benefits is to make your practice test difficult. Utilizing free recall, for example, will work better than fill in the blank because it creates a desired level of difficulty that promotes effortful retrievable, which becomes more salient in memory. Another way to improve is to repeat your practice tests.  As you might suspect, you are more likely to remember something the more times you practice remembering it, and especially the more times you remember it correctly. Groundbreaking information, I know. Finally, space your tests apart. You are better off to do several short practice tests spaced out over the course of a week before the exam than to do one giant practice test session the night before the exam. Again, spacing tests creates a desired level of difficulty, as you tend to experience forgetting in between sessions. So, you must put forth extra effort in order to retrieve the information, which again makes it more salient in memory (Dunlosky et al. 2013).


I’m not saying you should jump up and down for joy the next time your professor announces an exam, or become the person that asks your professor if you can have more exams and practice quizzes for homework (in fact, don’t ever be that person..ever). However, hopefully your animosity towards testing has been subsequently reduced by these pearls of wisdom. Sometimes, you have to learn to love what’s good for you. No matter how much more appealing gum inflammation sounds.


Literature Cited:

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58. pdf

Categories: Education, Memory Tags: ,
  1. October 7th, 2014 at 18:44 | #1

    I have to admit, as I am reading this blog post I am procrastinating on studying for my mid-term exams. But, I am procrastinating with the best of intentions: I want to learn to study better! I am glad I chose this post to read, because now I know to test myself on the material will find on the test. Between reading this post and Madison’s “Don’t Let It Go: How To Study For Finals Using Testing,” I have now been thoroughly convinced. I need to test myself throughout my studying if I want to perform well on the test. I was happy to hear that the type of test you use to practice does not matter. Tests that I know will have short answer questions always scare me because I do not know what types of questions are being asked. Therefore, even testing myself using multiple choice or flashcards will still help me remember the information! I have actually observed this in my own test-taking, specifically in studying for Chinese vocabulary quizzes. When I test myself with flashcards, as opposed to simply reading over the vocab, I tend to memorize the words a lot more quickly, and perform better on the test. Another example of testing is the way we take quizzes in my Cognitive Psychology class for a couple of weeks before the test. Not only is studying for the quizzes helping me to encode information well before the test, making it easier to retrieve when it comes time for the exam, but it also helps me simply through the act of taking the test and reviewing my answers afterwards! I’m glad to hear that this good-study technique is built into my class, otherwise, I think I would struggle more to motivate myself to self-test!

  2. April 15th, 2014 at 11:26 | #2

    This article is very well written and witty. The extra comments you added, made me want to keep reading the article. I found it to be very informative and chalk full of helpful tips I will use on my upcoming midterms. This post reminded me of the Rodiger and Pyc article we read for class the other week. It coincides with Dunklosky’s article in saying that taking practice tests before exams is one of the best ways to study. It demonstrates the information that needs to be studied more. When studying and taking practice tests, they should be spaced, as you stated above. This helps to increase encoding variability, which makes it easier for one to retrieve information. I am glad that I read this blog post because now I have two sources that prove taking practice tests is a great way to study.

  3. March 20th, 2014 at 14:07 | #3

    I really enjoyed this post. It’s kind of funny, I suppose, but I think its main strength is that it really is very informative. It gives a very good summary of a ridiculously long article (167 pages total), and presents the information clearly. While this makes the post strong, however, I think it is lacking a bit in sources. However extensive or informative Dunklosky et al’s research was, it is still only one study, and while the fact seem to add up, I cannot help but feel a bit skeptical. What I think would improve this post would be corroboration of the facts presented by other results. Again, I am not claiming to be the authority on what to believe, and what not to, but this article would seem far more solid if the results in Dunklosky et al were replicated in even one more study.

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