Why Testing Improves Memory

I just received an interesting article from my doctoral advisor, a memory researcher at GSU.

Some psychologists at Kent State are examining how testing affects memory and memory strategies.

Testing, as we know, is not just to gauge student progress or inform our sessions.  Testing is a powerful tool to enhance learning.  Testing has a significant impact on retention and encoding information into long-term memory.  Study alone is not as robust. This is why we insist that students take practice tests.

Why does testing (AKA taking mocks) impact retention in a way that review and study (practice problems) do not?

The KSU researchers found that students need a chance to fail (retrieval failures) in order to strengthen or replace their memorization strategies.  You don’t know you need a new strategy until the one you are relying upon comes up short.  And when a strategy for memorization (a mantra, a heuristic) was successful in a testing situation, the researchers proposed that this strategy was consequently enhanced in long term memory.  After failure, students in this study went back (the test-restudy condition) and modified their memory strategies to find more effective ways to remember the content.

So students clearly learn from their experiences of success and failure in testing experiences, and the act of taking a practice test is actually one of the best ways to encode information deeper into long-term memory.

You can listen to the podcast that discusses Mary A. Pyc and Katherine A. Rawson’s study, Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis, which was originally published 15 October 2010 in Science Magazine.

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