Home > Education, Memory > Tests Don’t Have to be Bad!

Tests Don’t Have to be Bad!

Most people don’t enjoy taking tests. Tests mean stress, late nights, and coffee – lots and lots of coffee.  However, not all tests have to be bad. What if, in fact, some tests were helpful?

Testing, when used as a study method, benefits later retention – a phenomenon known as the testing effect (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In other words, students who take tests, rather than simply rereading their notes, while studying tend to do better on their actual exams (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

So what does this mean? Instead of merely rereading your notes or textbook, try taking some practice tests. Look for tests that offer immediate feedback, as immediate feedback provides even greater benefits in terms of performance on later assessments (Roediger & Butler, 2013).  It doesn’t matter if you find a short answer or multiple-choice practice test; as long as you answer questions and receive feedback, you will be studying and absorbing the material more effectively than if you were just rereading (Smith & Karpicke, 2013). Search the textbook and its website. You’re bound to find something! 

This technique of answering questions before a test might seem tedious or unhelpful at first; however, students typically learn more than they think. After rereading your notes, you may feel very prepared for your exam, but students who simply reread often preform worse than they expect; in contrast, those who take practice tests tend to preform better than they anticipate (Agarwal, Karpicke, Kang, Roediger, & McDermott, 2008).

Okay, so taking a practice test really is beneficial. But what happens if you can’t find any questions? Well, you can try making your own. Weinstein, McDermott, and Roediger (2010) found that generating questions has the same benefit as taking a test; so, if you can’t find a practice exam, create one!

Just test yourself! Any kind of self-testing is beneficial, whether it be with multiple-choice, short-answer, or even extended answer questions. Make sure you receive feedback and stay on task. Happy studying!



Agarwal, P. K., Karpicke, J. D.,  Kang, S. H., Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B.(2008). Examining the Testing Effect with Open- and Closed Book Tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 861-876.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.

Roediger, H.L., & Butler, A. C. (2013). Retrieval Practice (Testing) Effect. 660-661.

Smith, Megan A., & Karpicke, Jeffrey D. (2013). Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid tests. Memory. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2013.831454

Weinstein, Y., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2010). A Comparison of Study Strategies for Passages: Rereading, Answering Questions, and Generating Questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(3), 308-316.

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  1. December 10th, 2015 at 00:36 | #1

    Testing actually works! It is one thing to talk about good studying methods, but it is another to actually experience how well they work. I recently completed a Colby psych experiment where I had to read and take notes on a passage. I was then given a test on it. The questions were free response and at the end I was shown the correct answers. I got all of them correct except for one. Two days later I returned to complete a follow up test. Some of the questions were the ones I answered on the first test and some were new questions. I was able to remember the answer to the questions I had been tested on before, but not the new questions. Even the question that I previously got incorrect, I was able to remember the correct answer. But I couldn’t remember even reading about the answers to the new questions.
    That experiment showed me just how valuable retrieval practice is. Retrieving the information the first time really helped me solidify it and made it easier to do it a second time. Not only that, but the feedback/correct answers were just as important. If I had not received feedback, I wouldn’t have been able to give the correct answer on the follow up test to the question I answered incorrectly the first time. It will really make me rethink my study methods in the future.

  2. March 20th, 2014 at 22:38 | #2

    I think it’s also worth noting how effective testing is compared to studying methods other than just re-reading. A classmate of mine in PS234 (Raymond Chung) made a presentation on this very topic, citing a case study conducted by Dunlosky et al. The study evaluated the effectiveness of ten different methods of studying: “Elaborative Interrogation” (asking yourself ‘why?’), “Self-explanation” (explaining the concept to yourself), Summarization (one of my preferred study methods), Highlighting, “Keyword mnemonics”, “Imagery for Text” (making mental images), Rereading, Practice testing, “Distributed Practice”, and Interleaved Practice (switching topics back and forth while studying) (Dunlosky et al.).

    In agreement with your post, Dunlosky et al. found that practice testing was one of the two most effective study habits (the other being Distributed Practice). They also found that rereading is within the “low utility” (the worst) tier, along with summarization, highlighting, mnemonics, and imagery (Dunlosky et al.). This makes it clear that the most effective study habit is distributed study with testing.

    Although testing is the best study habit, I find that I don’t usually have time to set up elaborate tests that cover all of the material needed, so I’ve created my own system that combines testing and summarization. I make an outline of my notes, summarize all of the major points onto flash cards, and test myself periodically. While it’s not the optimal method, I find that it’s a fast way of testing myself before exams.

  3. March 19th, 2014 at 19:55 | #3

    I really like the way you targeted students in your post. It was nice to see some helpful advice for studying and preparing for exams. I have heard many times that testing improves performance on exams but I hadn’t heard that creating tests has the same effect and I think that is really interesting. I wish you had explained at least a little about why testing is more effective than rereading. What processes make testing and creating tests more effective than rereading? Since we just started talking about memory in class, I’ll make some guesses. I’m guessing that studying involves working memory as well as long term memory. If someone is only rereading their notes, interference may be a big reason they don’t remember as much. Rereading would probably cause some interference with the material you already read. However, testing would avoid this interference because instead of trying to shove the information into your memory, you are retrieving information from your long term memory. The more you retrieve information, I would assume, the stronger the memory trace for the information becomes. Rereading would only involve the working memory, whereas testing, I think, would would incorporate long term memory, and that would make it more effective.

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