NYT Article: How Tests Make Us Smarter

Last summer, the New York Times published an opinion piece about the purpose of testing in schools and how examinations actually help people learn. After this school year’s debates over Common Core standards and testing in New York and across the country, it’s worth revisiting some of the reasons why schools include testing in the learning process.

Testing Improves Information Retention

The New York Times piece summarizes a study from Purdue University, which assessed how examinations helped students improve their learning ability. Students read material and were either quizzed on the reading right away or asked to reread the information. The people who took quizzes performed better on their final exams than those who only reread the material. This might seem a little counterintuitive, because many students study by rereading material at regular intervals before their exams. However, according to the researchers conducting the study, simply going over material helps students improve their knowledge storing and acquisition skills, while testing right away forces students to get better at retrieving knowledge.

This increased retention due to testing is known as the “testing effect,” and it increases students’ abilities to remember ideas. In fact, the students in the study who were quizzed right away scored an average of an A- on the following final exam, but students who only reviewed the material had a C+ average. Eight months later, the students took another test on the material, and the ones who were quizzed after reading the material outperformed the students who had only reread the material. These results clearly show that some forms of testing can help students retain and use information!

Which Testing Tools Help Most?

The study found that frequent, low-stakes testing is best for improving memory retrieval, and this type of testing can take the form of short pop quizzes or other quick types of exams. The current emphasis on annual make or break exams is not as helpful to students as regular, low-key testing, because these year-end exams happen too late to build up knowledge retrieval skills. Developing these habits through testing over the course of each school year is a better way to improve as a student.

Other Surprising Insights

The study also compared the quizzes on new material to other common types of test prep methods. In addition to the rereading process, the researchers found that several other habits fail to prepare students thoroughly. Underlining and highlighting key points do not help students store and retrieve knowledge when it’s time for an exam! These strategies can be useful during exams as students try to find important information, but they fail as pre-test study strategies. Doing self-quizzes, writing flash cards, and other active techniques are better for practicing knowledge retrieval.

How Can Students Become More Comfortable with Testing?

When many people think of testing, they remember grueling annual exams and stressful preparation. By including more frequent types of testing in school, teachers can make exams less scary and more beneficial for students. Even without official quizzes and exams, students can improve their memory retrieval skills by using smarter study strategies.

Origins Tutoring can help students prepare for tests of any type, whether they’re high-stakes college admissions exams or routine quizzes and knowledge assessments in school. Read about our test prep philosophy to learn more.