Quizzing yourself before an exam can enhance your learning

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D and founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada


Studying for exams can be daunting for many students. They need to read a large amount of material in their textbooks, read over their class notes, try to figure out what they will be tested on and manage their time with other exams and homework. Some students use highlighters and highlight just about every sentence in their textbook, albeit with 4 different colours of course! Others take notes while they read and end up with almost as many pages as in the textbook. Most importantly, a large number of students will re-read their material over several times. Nonetheless, after long hours of studying (or cramming the night before for some), there are students who still feel unprepared or don’t remember what they studied. If exam anxiety is not a factor, then perhaps the student is not studying effectively. According to a research study by Jeffrey Karpicke (Memory, 2009), the majority of students are using the wrong study strategies and this impedes memory and learning.

The wrong way to study: Rereading material.

Studies have shown that repeatedly reading the same material as a study strategy is inefficient in terms of getting the information into long-term memory (learning). There is even a name for this type of studying in research. It is referred to as “labour-in-vain” learning and is defined as students who spend large amounts of time studying despite no gains in memory (Roediger & Karpicke. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2006). There is simply too much information to register into your memory when you study this way. Essentially, there are 3 steps to memory. Dr. Sonial Lupien provides a simple way to understand these steps. “You can think of the three stages of memory processing in the following way: encoding is like listening to songs, consolidation is like recording those songs (or burning a CD), and retrieval is like playing back the songs.” In education, practicing retrieval rather than encoding the same information repeatedly, has been shown to enhance learning.

The right way to study: Quizzing yourself.

According to research, a phenomenon called “The Testing Effect” (practicing retrieval) suggests that “taking a test enhances long-term retention more than spending an equivalent amount of time repeatedly studying” (Roediger & Karpicke. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2006). However, there is only one caveat to this “perfect way to study”. Research on the Testing Effect has also highlighted the fact that when students are asked to assess their own learning, they often lack the awareness (or metacognitive awareness) that testing themselves is a far better strategy than repeatedly reading the material (Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger. Science, 2008). In fact, students even predicted that repeatedly reading their textbook was a better study strategy than testing themselves. This is alarming to researchers because it suggests that even if teachers recommend this study strategy, students will not see the benefits and will stick to their usual study methods. This is also why small quizzes before an exam can also help with student retention.

Tips for teachers: Help students learn how to study and build their metacognitive skills.

If we as teachers hope to contribute to lifelong learning, then we must hose classroom methodologies, actions, and activities that improve thinking
— Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Making Classrooms Better

I love this quote from the book, Making Classrooms Better. Indeed, students need to be more conscious of their own thinking (how and why’s of ideas). This is referred to as metacognition (thinking about your thinking) and is an important factor in student achievement. Teachers can bring more awareness about learning and the brain, for instance, by discussing with their students the importance of practicing retrieval rather than encoding. Studies that suggested the importance of practicing retrieval stressed the fact that students needed stronger metacognitive skills to have a deeper understanding of the importance of this study strategy. Here are some tips from Donna Wilson on how teachers help their students build metacognitive skills.

Talk about metacognition with your students and guide them as to how to develop this skill. For instance, after reading a paragraph or section of their textbook, have your students question themselves about the concepts and material discussed in the paragraph. Self-questioning is a common metacognitive comprehension monitoring strategy (Livingston 2003). If a student can’t answer their own questions, have them read over the paragraph to determine what they need to understand in order to answer their question. Incorporate “think aloud” activities in your class. If you assign a long-term project for students, ask them to find a partner and outline the steps needed to complete the project out loud (from start to finish) and outline the goals they have for this project (what they need to learn). They can even record themselves as they think aloud. You can also do this to “think through problems”. Helping students develop metacognitive skills falls under a student-centered approach to learning, which customizes learning to each student and helps build their confidence and motivation. Lastly, guide students on how to “set appropriate goals, how to track progress toward them, appropriately adjust learning strategies, and accurately assess learning outcomes” (Jobs for the Future). These are all skills that they need to be taught and will help build their executive function and metacognitive skills.

Share your experiences with us in the comments below! Your experiences can help other teachers as well! If you have any questions email us at info@curiousneuron.com.

Surviving the Examination Period

Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co


Surviving the “dreaded” exam period is no easy task for student’s, let alone their support network. There is no doubt that we want our children to succeed, which we assume means to study, study, study. Current research, however, is suggesting that although studying is a major piece of the puzzle, there are other important areas that we need to be aware of that add to the academic success of our children.  

Exam Details

First and foremost, knowing the details of your exam is imperative. While this seems obvious to us as adults, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the adolescent brain which controls judgment and planning (among many other skills) is undergoing quite a number of changes during adolescence. Ultimately these changes have the ability to make one “functionally smarter” but it also suggests that students have the ability to learn new skills which promote academic success. As such, it is important that we begin to teach our children how to organize themselves and time manage for exams. Here is a link to an article on teenage brain development should you be interested in reading further.

When it comes to the exam period, students seem to become flustered as their sense of schedule has become disrupted. Often times I will talk to my students about exams and to my surprise, the response is “Ms., I have no idea… My parents have it on their calendar”. As a school professional, this is not acceptable. While parents should absolutely be involved and essentially be the backup center when children are feeling overwhelmed or disorganized, children need to take responsibility by writing down the details so that they become the driver in their success (this will also help their brain develop important planning skills and executive function skills). This doesn’t mean that we don’t help them, but learning this skill and teaching them young, has benefits far beyond academics.

So which exam details are important to keep in mind? While basic details such as date, time, location, and which materials to bring is essential, knowing the kind of exam you are preparing for is key. Is the exam multiple choice or is it essay format? Will you need to remember dates, formulas, or other specific content? Knowing this information ahead of time allows for the opportunity to plan ahead. For instance, making a math memory aid is a tool commonly used to organize mathematical information that can then serve to remind the brain of the learned information. Additionally, students studying their history material can take the time to create review sheets that have visual timelines which make it easier to remember or create acronyms for material that is more difficult. All of these strategies, require that children know the details of their exam in order to prepare accordingly. Therefore, helping them understand the importance of the details and how to use the information effectively is a sure way to help promote academic success.  

Food and Sleep

During exams, we have two different kinds of students. Student A who doesn’t feel there is enough time in a day to study and therefore skips meals or goes to bed late or wakes up early. On the other hand, Student B can’t function if they don’t take the time to eat and sleep and so they implement an appropriate routine. So which student do you think is likely to have greater academic success? If you chose Student B, you are absolutely correct!

A current study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that students who eat breakfast have higher academic grades, less absences, and have increased cognitive performance. One area in particular being memory and we certainly need our memory for academic success (Student B as per our example). For those that skip breakfast (Student A as per our example), which is a reality for many children, results showed a noticeable decrease in alertness, attention, memory, and problem solving which aren’t exactly the areas we would like to see decreasing!

While trying to implement an appropriate bedtime for high school students during exam period may be a challenging task, it is important to remind our children that research shows that a good night’s sleep is directly related to academic performance. More specifically, researchers from McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal have found direct links between quality sleeps and better performance in math and languages. To be exact, the National Sleep Foundation is suggesting that teenagers need at least 9 hours of sleep (Elementary school students need 10-11 hours of sleep). For more information or on tips for implementing better sleep habits, feel free to follow the National Sleep Foundation link.

Study Breaks

Finally, we cannot forget about study breaks. Just the same as taking the time to eat and sleep properly, study breaks are crucial as there is a direct link with academic performance. While study breaks are proven to be important, knowing how to take a proper study break is a skill teenagers don’t necessarily have yet and need to be taught. Children can start by taking regular, shorter breaks, rather than longer ones as it may be more difficult to get back on track. Since the time a child is able to focus is about their age but in minutes (i.e. an average 7 year old can sit down and stay concentrated for about 7 min) we need to keep this in mind, especially when they are studying. Getting up and doing something physical movement for 1-2 minutes every 10-15 minutes also helps to bring energy back into the body, since sitting for long periods of time without moving is hard on the body. While these are just two basic tips I give my students, there are many others suggestions by Oxford Learning, if you would like to have a look!  

As you can see, studying is not the only factor in academic performance but rather the combination of the quality of studying, food , and sleep. As such, we have a responsibility as parents, teachers, and professionals to help our children learn the strategies and be aware of the current research, so that they have the best foundation to achieve their own personal academic success!


Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co

Does your student have test anxiety?

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada


I still have vivid memories of my test anxiety. In college, I literally handed in blank exams. My anxiety was so high that I could not remember anything, even if I had studied way ahead of time. I remember my inner dialogue during exams, “What’s wrong with me, why can’t I answer these questions! I studied so much for this! I should know this. I am going to fail this exam.”. I eventually learned to improve my self-talk and self-esteem and my anxiety began to decrease. I learned to take better notes, to study more effectively and more importantly, I built up my confidence. The anxiety never completely disappeared, but I was able to pursue graduate school and learn to work through it. When working privately with students, I always tell them about my struggles so that they know they can also work through their own struggles including test anxiety. I think there are many students out there silentley struggling with this, which is why I thought it would be important to write an article about this.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is defined in research as “comprising psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions that occur in association with concern about the negative outcomes resulting from failure or poor performance in evaluative situations” (Zeidner, 1998). It is estimated that 25-40% of students exhibit some level of test anxiety (Putwain 2007, Ergene 2003) with girls showing higher rates (Hembree 1988). Test anxiety is strongly linked to lower grades and lower academic performance (Segool et al. 2013). This relationship between higher levels of test anxiety and lower grades is highest in students between the ages of 11-14 (von der Embse et al. 2018). Research has shown that levels of test anxiety are higher for standardized state/government exams compared to regular classroom exams (von der Embse et al. 2018).

What are signs of test anxiety?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides the following as symptoms of test anxiety:

  1. Physical symptoms. A headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.

  2. Emotional symptoms. Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.

  3. Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms. Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.

Why do we forget when we are nervous?

Stress affects memory. When you forget while writing an exam it is because your anxiety has blocked access to the information you stored in your memory. The information is still there, you simply can't access it due to the stress. This is caused by your stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine). Memory can be either short-term (also called working memory) or long-term. When studying, this information needs to become a long-term memory.  Dr. Sonia Lupien, one of the leading scientists on stress,  gives a simple analogy for memory processing, "You can think of the three stages of memory processing in the following way: encoding is like listening to songs, consolidation is like recording those songs (or burning a CD), and retrieval is like playing back the songs". Research shows that a little stress during encoding can actually boost memory, while too much can hinder your ability to encode the information. For example, if you are teaching new material and tell the students that they will be tested on this, a student with test anxiety might not encode well as of this point since their stress levels will rise up. In addition, the stress a student experiences while writing the exam can hinder their recall ability. A simple thought such as "If I fail this test I will not get into University" can cause our brain to perceive the current situation (taking a test) as a "threat", which in turn will release stress hormones. When your brain perceives a situation as a "threat", it doesn't differentiate between writing an exam or being face to face with a bear. Your brain also doesn't need you to think in a time of stress, it needs you to react quickly, known as the fight or flight response. The part of your brain involved in thinking is blocked off and your ability to access memory is blocked as well. This is why you can't remember!! For more info, click here.

Dr. Lupien outlines 4 key "stress ingredients" including Novelty, Unpredictability, Treat to the Ego and Sense of control (she uses the acronym NUTS). Unfortunately, tests touch upon all of these factors. Being aware of these "stress ingredients" may help you address the problem. (**Stay tuned for an upcoming article on Anxiety in Children for more details on what happens to the brain when you have general anxiety.) 

Tips for reducing test anxiety:

Dr. Judy Willis highlights 8 steps that can help reduce a student's test anxiety in her book Ignite Student Learning:

  1. In class practice tests: Have students take a practice test and have them correct it on their own rather than have another student correct it. In class practice tests are especially important when practicing for standardized tests, which cause even higher levels of test anxiety in elementary school students than classroom exams (Segool et al. 2003). Practice tests help reduce test anxiety since the "novelty" aspect from Dr. Lupien's stress ingredients is removed.

  2. Eliminate "pop" quizzes: Dr. Willis also mentions that teachers should give advanced notice of exams to help reduce test anxiety.

  3. Visualization: Before handing out the test, ask students to close their eyes and visualize their successful performance on the test. Many professional athletes use visualization to help build confidence for a specific play and to mentally practice it.

  4. Have pre-exam "priming sessions": She defines "priming sessions" as 2-minute discussions with the entire class on what they think will be the key points covered on the test you are about to hand out. Write only keywords on the board. This will help "prime" the students memory and help them with recall during the exam. After you have done this with them a few times, they can begin to do this on their own. Give them a few minutes before the exam to do this. Concept maps are a great way to do this!!

  5. Practice relaxation rituals: Two minutes of deep breathing or any form of meditation can help them relax. Here are some tips on classroom meditation.

  6. Include test de-stressors: Add a little joke on the second page of the exam, or a little comic strip. After 20 min, allow students to stand and stretch or encourage students at some point to take a drink of water from their bottle and close their eyes for 30 seconds to refocus.

  7. Show students that incorrect answers do not equal being a poor learning: Students have lots of stress placed on them to do well and to get it all correct right away. Don't be afraid to acknowledge your own mistakes to show them that we all make mistakes and more importantly we learn from them.

  8. Allow time for test corrections to help build metacognition: Use some classroom time to have students go over the errors and correct them. This correction will help students better understand their mistakes and build on their knowledge. Dr. Willis also mentions that students should describe what type of mistake they made. For instance, was it an error in arithmetic or did they not understand that concept?

I would add to the above list the importance of helping a student build their self-esteem and academic confidence. Provide them with positive and meaningful feedback when possible (see our past article on this topic) and speak to their parents to increase their awareness about reducing the pressure placed on them. Also, talk to them about brain functioning during stress. In my own experience of giving workshops on brain science in schools for over 10 years, I learned that if students understand how their brain functions, they have more control over their learning. If the level of anxiety seems worrisome and none of the tips above have helped them, ask their parents to speak to the child's doctor to seek professional help for anxiety. 

I believe it is imperative that we start to address test anxiety a lot more in the classroom. I never spoke of my own anxieties to anyone, I just fell into a mental loop of thinking I was not "smart enough", which resulted in lower grades on more exams. Students need to learn early on that test anxiety is not a wall they have hit in their academic careers. Rather, it is just a bump in the road and with hard work they can move passed it.