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.