Taking Tests Really Does Help You Learn

Taking tests aren’t just a ‘passive mechanism for assessing’ how much students know, says new research the January 20th New York Times reports on. 

The research, published online in Science, found that the basic practice of having students take tests on material learned resulted them retaining about 50 percent more than students who used other methods that have, of late, been championed by educators. These other study methods are (1) simply studying the material over and over–if you have a Latin vocabulary quiz, reading through the list of Latin words and English definitions repeatedly and (2) drawing ‘detailed diagrams’ which document, in a more creative fashion, what students have learned—to return to my vocabulary quiz example, this might mean having students make ‘word maps’ that, like flow charts, show connections of meanings and, too, English words that are related to the Latin words.

‘Concept Mapping’ vs. ‘Retrieval Practice’

200 college students had to read several paragraphs about a scientific subject (how the digestive system works, for instance). As the New York Time describes the research, there were two experiments:

In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions.

A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

After a week, all four groups took a short-answer test that ‘assessed their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts.’


The second experiment honed in on the methods of concept mapping and retrieval practice testing. When each student completed an exercise using both methods, making the diagrams while reading led to the students retaining more detail in the short run.


But after a week, the students who had used ‘retrieval practice’ did much better when tested. Indeed, they ‘even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.’  In other words, the ‘retrieval practice’ method in which students were more frequently tested, was more effective.



The Benefits of Testing, Testing, Testing

As to why ‘retrieval practice’ proved more effective in these experiments: Scientists suggest that the very act of remembering information leads to the creation of ‘cues and connections’—to familiar patterns and ways of thinking– that the brains later recognizes.  Further the very ‘struggle’ to recall something in a testing situation actually helps us to ‘reinforce it in our brains,’ even though it might make one feel less confident. 


A Quiz Every Week

For the past couple of years, I have been giving the students in my Latin and ancient Greek classes a quiz every week, either on vocabulary words or on learning grammatical forms (how to conjugate verbs, for instance). For learning these ancient languages, I have found it helps to have the students have such frequent, regular testing. Because there is a weekly quiz, the students are constantly having to work on remembering material, and get in the habit of memorizing. Over time, they become more comfortable with taking the quizzes as they have taken so many. 


The few times when students have not had a weekly quiz—sometimes because I’ve wanted to focus more on going over material—they have struggled more to learn vocabulary and grammatical forms. While foregoing a quiz initially seems like a welcome relief, the pace of learning in the class gets off-kilter, without the students having had that weekly chance to see how much they indeed know, or do not.


While the main content of each quiz is on material covered in the previous week or two, I always throw in a few extra credit questions about random facts of ancient history and mythology that I’ve mentioned in passing. It’s proved a good way to encourage students to pay attention at all times as anything said in class could be on the test.


More Testing Makes Things Stick in Students’ Memory

Noting how having students take more tests may seem like ‘”a waste of time”‘ in the short term, Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, points out in the New York Times that retrieval practice appears to ‘“make things stick in a way that may not be used in the classroom……..It’s going to last for the rest of their schooling, and potentially for the rest of their lives.”  

Picture in the photo: One of the author's own quizzes for her students taking Latin.


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Tests are fine. They are not the problem. The problem is teaching to the test not for the test. The difference is teaching only material that WILL be on the test as opposed to teaching material that MIGHT on the test. For example teaching only fairy tales because the test will be on fairy tales as opposed to reading different genres such as poems, history, myths and fables, as well as fairy tales.

Stephen Young
Stephen Young7 years ago

tests are OK but the object of education it to teach kids to think not just pass tests

Trish K.
Trish K7 years ago

Testing keeps the mind alert.

Norm C.
Norm C7 years ago

It all depends on the test and how it's used and by whom.

Standardized tests are atrocious. Multiple guess tests in general are terrible.

Using a test for any purpose other than helping a student better understand specific material is destructive rather than helpful.

Robert Shaffer
Robert Shaffer7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Theresa C.
Theresa C7 years ago

Thank you :)

Girl U.
.7 years ago

Good to know. Thank you for the article!

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli7 years ago

Kids are tested to much now..and taught to the test. It leaves them little to no time for art/music/drama classes, PE, and lessons in social studies and history and such beyond just the highly tested and worried about math and science.

Eva Orta
Eva O7 years ago

I think that (more) tests at least forces the students to learn (more). Then again, writing papers, engaging in discussions, specific roleplay, etc. might also help :)
Thank you very much for this interesting article tho!

K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.