A recent study has shown that test-taking does not just assess the knowledge one has already learned—it can be a learning tool in and of itself. Apparently we recall information better if we are tested on it.
The study required participants to read a passage and then be tested on it a week later using various methods of retention. One group simply studied the material repeatedly—a popular method among college students. Another group was told to diagram what they were learning in “concept maps”—a trendy retention method in the education community. Another group was given a test on the material immediately after reading it. The group that was tested on the material outscored the other groups in the later test by 50 percent.
The other methods were only successful in raising the subjects’ confidence in their knowledge of the material. The subjects who studied and did the concept maps predicted they would remember more of the material than the subjects in the testing group predicted for themselves. But in actuality, the tested subjects vastly outperformed the others.
Another study compared only the methods of retrieval testing and concept mapping. In the final assessment, the subjects were asked to draw a concept map of the material from memory. The subjects in the retrieval testing group still did better than the subjects in the concept mapping group, even under these conditions.
These results might be because the subjects who had already been tested on the material were able to recognize things that they missed the first time and revisit them in their minds. It might also be because they were practicing the process of retrieving the information, and were thus more able to retrieve it later.
Does this mean that students should be tested more in the future? It is certainly compelling evidence that testing is an effective tool. But today’s education community prefers methods—like concept mapping—that promote critical thinking, rather than simply memorization. Time will tell.