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Don’t Let It Go: How To Study For Finals Using Testing

The clock signals the hour. Your palms are sweaty as your professor hands out your final exam. You take a deep breath and look down at the questions in front of you only to realize that you have no idea what the answer is to the first question. Has this ever happened to you? I know it’s happened to me more times than I care to admit. I’ve even had exams that I’ve spent hours studying for and found my brain completely blank when finally confronted with the exam. As a result, I’ve been on the search for the best study strategies to combat these final exam blues.

On my quest, I found myself taking Cognitive Psychology. A key component in memory formation is transferring the information you want to know from your Short Term Memory to your Long Term Memory. Short Term Memory is the little chunk of information you’re currently trying to learn but you forget this information very quickly, within minutes. How is it, then, that you remember your 8th grade ancient history lessons? Long Term Memory. Long Term Memory is the stuff you know seamlessly and without effort. Retrieval isn’t always successful. The information in long term memory can stay for years, decades or better yet, whole semesters and the storage space available is practically infinite but, we aren’t always able to retrieve everything we put in. However, testing drastically improves our ability to remember that information over time and slows the rate of forgetting (how quickly we forget things).

How do you then get information from your Short Term Memory to your Long Term Memory? You go through a process of encoding and retrieval. These are just fancy psychological terms meaning you put the information in (encoding) and you take the information out (retrieval).

Pastotter et al. also found that testing yourself after study is known to reduce the amount of forgetting you have and increase your scores on further tests, this is called the testing effect. A test itself, therefore, has you retrieve the information you encoded and lets you know what information you have encoded and what information you don’t know as well. A study by Verkoeijen et al. also found that being tested is actually significantly better for your performance on further tests than restudying the information.

Then you’re thinking, so when do I take this test? And how do I test myself? What’s the best way to test myself? A study by Pastotter et al. from 2010 states that taking a test while you’re learning the information or trying to commit it to memory increases your recall of the information you’re trying to remember compared to just re-reading or reviewing the information. Let’s say you’re studying for a really hard memory-filled Classics exam and you have tons of words and verbs and forms to memorize. If you study a certain verb form for your exam, it would be really beneficial for you after you learn it in class or during your study time to test yourself on it. It actually would be even more beneficial to test yourself before you start studying and after you study the material. If you test yourself before you study the material, you’re priming, a psychology term for preparing/readying your brain for that type of information. Then study the material and then test yourself again to see how much you’ve learnt.

An article by Pyc and Rawson suggests that giving yourself a really hard test is an even better way to learn. Now this may seem completely crazy. You’re thinking how could a super hard test possibly get the information into my brain and, more importantly, my Long Term Memory? Pyc and Rawson suggested that there is something about the retrieval effort hypothesis that rings true. The retrieval effort hypothesis states that the harder something is to remember, or retrieve, the stronger memory trace it leaves behind. The stronger the memory is, the easier it is to retrieve from memory. Furthermore, the harder the test during study was, the better the person performed on a final test, similar to your final exam. Whereas, the easier the test, the easier the information was to forget.


There are many ways you could go about testing yourself. You could make flash cards and test yourself through them or you could make yourself an exam where you’d have to write out the answers or you could read a question in your notes, hide the answer, and do your best to answer the question in your head. A recent study by Smith and Roediger actually examined what would be the best way to go about testing yourself. They differentiated between two types of testing; covert and overt retrieval. Covert retrieval is when you test yourself silently in your head whereas overt retrieval is when you have to give an outward response of your answer, be it through speech, writing, or typing. Contrary to previous studies that assumed and confirmed that overt retrieval was better, Smith and Roediger found that actually covert retrieval is just as useful as, and sometimes even more beneficial than, overt retrieval. What does this mean to you? It means that you should make a practice exam, or write questions on cue cards and silently test yourself. If you’re consciously searching for the information in your brain and retrieving it before seeing the answer, you’re likely to do better on the actual exam. You can therefore test yourself in scenarios where you cannot answer out loud or in writing, like waiting in line for Take 4 or right after class, or on your way to your dorm (but please watch your step).

So I’ve given you a lot of information with a lot of jargon but what it boils down to is that testing yourself while studying is the best thing you can do prepare for your finals. So next time you find yourself worrying over how you’re going to do on your finals, take a test on the material you have to know. Not only will this test tell you what you don’t know but it’ll also make sure that the information you do know stays in your Long Term Memory long enough to make sure you ace that exam and maybe even lead to lifelong learning.

If you’re wondering how to go about planning your studying please go see this article on spacing.

Best of luck on your finals and happy testing!


Works Cited

Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition36(5), 1118-1133. Retrieved February 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0019902
Pastötter, B., Schicker, S., Niedernhuber, J., & Bäuml, K. T. (2011). Retrieval During Learning Facilitates Subsequent Memory Encoding.. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition,37(2), 287-297. Retrieved February 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021801
Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2009). Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory?. Journal of Memory and Language,60(4), 437-447. Retrieved February 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004
Smith, M. A., Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2013). Covert retrieval practice benefits retention as much as overt retrieval practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition,39(6), 1712-1725. Retrieved February 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0033569
Verkoeijen, P. P., Tabbers, H. K., & Verhage, M. L. (2011). Comparing the Effects of Testing and Restudying on Recollection in Recognition Memory. Experimental Psychology (formerly Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie)58(6), 490-498. Retrieved February 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000117
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  1. May 9th, 2014 at 18:54 | #1

    Madison, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I think you present the research in a very accessible way for readers without a cognitive background to understand. Before reading your post, I knew that self-testing was one of the best ways to study for an exam, but I never thought about how testing prior to studying could be helpful–so thanks for that tip! It’s also encouraging to know that covert retrieval can be just as beneficial as overt retrieval. As the previous studies suggest, I would also assume that overt retrieval would show better test performance. You make clear in your post what Smith and Roediger found in their study, but I guess I am still curious in knowing how they came to these results and why is overt retrieval just as beneficial? Maybe just a little more discussion about their results and how they arrived to them would be helpful in answering these questions. Overall though, nice post!

  2. October 8th, 2014 at 23:45 | #2

    I really enjoy reading about testing because this is one my biggest areas of improvement as a college student academically challenged at Colby. The pressure of doing well just adds on to the anxiety I usually experience while testing. I find it interesting that anxiety is being linked to the level of preparedness for an exam, specifically, testing oneself before after studying. However, when it comes to priming, the motion of preparing or readying the brain can’t this also be at risk of being a memory error. For example, if someone does a poor job of recalling accurate information before studying it can’t this information be at risk of becoming a false memory or a case of misattribution in recall. In addition, I noticed that your post speaks to acknowledging how much you have learned when testing oneself, thus bringing me to wonder if this self evaluation leads to self assurance and can be linked to increasing the ability to recall information under stressful environments like exams.

    In addition, I was intrigued by the idea of harder self-testing leaving stronger memory traces in order to better retain and recall information. This in relation to the act of conscious and continuous search and retrieval of information before seeing the answer can eliminate factors like blocking (one of the seven sins of memory). This idea can be further supported by the idea of automaticity in retrieving specific information, conscious and continuous testing requires more attention and can become automatized to an extent.

  3. November 18th, 2014 at 17:32 | #3

    I feel like every college student should read this blog post because it is so relevant to us. I feel as if I am constantly being tested, and studying for exams can be incredibly stressful, so learning good study techniques is crucial to success. I have always been someone who has studying by making flashcards and quizzing myself, so I was very happy to learn that this was a very good way to study! While sometimes this self quizzing technique feels tedious and frustrating, I know that this is actually a good thing because it is supporting the retrieval effort hypothesis, that the harder something is in the moment to study, the more beneficial it is. This goes along with a concept known as desirable difficulties, that says that difficulties during studying is actually a good thing because it helps improve memory in the long run. Spacing is also incredibly important. Spacing is the opposite of cramming, spacing out your studying over a matter of days or weeks as opposed to a marathon eight hour study session the day before. Researcher has shown that cramming does actually work in the short term, students who crammed and were immediately tested did a little bit better than students who spaced. But, after a delay, students who spaced did significantly better on exams than the students who crammed did. Spacing allows for time for information to be transferred to Long Term Memory so that information is not as easily forgotten. Its also important to interleave information when studying. An example of this would be, that when you’re studying verb forms for classics midterm (like Maddison said), when you quiz yourself, quiz yourself on a variety of verb forms at the same time, not just one verb form over and over again. This allows you to learn to not only identify the correct answer, but discriminate between the different forms and help you learn to decide what verb form is correct in certain situations. The trouble with learning all of this, is actually applying it to real life!

  4. emlandry
    October 22nd, 2015 at 13:54 | #4

    The first few sentences of this post are sadly so relevant to me. Every semester I find myself falling into the same bad habit of simply re-reading my notes as a method of studying, only to realize after I receive my sub-par exam grade that this perhaps isn’t the best way to encode information. However, I struggle finding ways to test myself, so this post captured my attention.

    I would be interested to see how this “testing” changes from subject to subject. For instance, are the benefits of this method of self-testing upheld when studying for math (which involves knowledge and integration of more overarching concepts and rules) versus classics (which, although I’ve never taken a classics course, I can imagine being more dependent on memorization of facts)?

    I also found myself thinking a lot about the concept of interference as I read this piece. We talked in class about how interference is one of the fastest routes to forgetting, but would it also play a role in inhibiting the encoding of new information? As college students know all too well, exams in multiple subjects are often scheduled uncomfortably close to each other, forcing us to study for several different subjects simultaneously. Would similarities across the subjects in the development of self-testing materials cause too much interference? For instance, I am enrolled in multiple science courses and I often find many similarities in the material across subjects. Would generating self-testing materials for such similar courses simultaneously actually hinder my studying efforts and defeat the purpose of self-testing?

    Thus while this post was extremely informative, it has left me with many questions regarding the effectiveness of my study habits as well as how to maximize the benefits of this self-testing method. I am looking forward to learning more about this topic in class, and in the meantime I can only hope that my questionable studying methods don’t have too detrimental of an effect on my GPA!

  5. December 10th, 2015 at 11:03 | #5

    Finals are around this corner so this blog caught my attention! It is so important for college students to find the most effective ways to study. Personally, I have used testing as a retrieval method by creating flashcards. It is important to know that information is accessible but only becomes available when you test yourself over the material. In Madison’s blog, I found the study she mentions to be intriguing. Smith and Roediger found that covert retrieval is just as useful as overt retrieval. I almost always speak out loud to myself when I’m studying, so I found this to be surprising. It makes sense though because you are still retrieving the information and explaining it to yourself just not out loud. Occasionally, I am unable to talk out loud (e.g. on the third floor of miller) so it is good to know that covert retrieval is just as beneficial as overt. We also learned about other beneficial methods for studying such as spacing and interleaving. In a study by Kornell & Bjork in 2008, they had participants study a variety of paintings by manet, monet and Picasso. One group studied by artist and the other group interleaved the information by studying all artists. The group that engaged in interleaving had more correct responses when identifying new and more paintings. There are many beneficial ways of studying so for my finals I will definitely study by retrieval, spacing and interleaving!

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