Learning by Test

I’m gifted on test-taking. It’s one of the things that made me stand out in my academic studies. I scored high on the standardized tests. I think the valedictorian at my high school ended up with a higher score, but then he also took the SAT three times to get there. I was satisified with my first SAT score. I did end up taking the GRE twice, but that’s because I ended up applying to grad school some ten years after I first took it, and they won’t distribute a score that old. My advisor in grad school said that it was the GRE scores that Diane and I had that first brought attention to our applications out of the mass received at Texas A&M.

The falconry test for the joint state-federal permit system is a multiple-choice exam, too. In 1982, Diane was studying for that and staying with my family in Lakeland, FL, where the Fish and Game regional office is located. I asked her whether they might be able to seat me for the exam, too, and she said maybe. I asked about what was likely to be covered on the exam, and Diane started going over the various sources she had been reading since junior high school. The main reference was Beebe and Webster’s North American Falconry & Hunting Hawks, which does a great job of introducing the topic. Between Diane’s tutoring and my own aptitude at analyzing multiple-choice exams, I made a passing score.

Enough boasting, though. A new psychology study shows a link between test-taking and long-term retention of studied material. In particular, they found that repeated test-taking aids retention in the long term better than does repeated studying.

In two experiments, one group of students studied a prose passage for about five minutes and then took either one or three immediate free-recall tests, receiving no feedback on the accuracy of answers. Another group received no tests in this phase, but was allowed another five minutes to restudy the passage each time their counterparts were involved in a testing session.

After phase one, each student was asked to take a final retention test presented at one of three intervals — five minutes, two days or one week later. When the final test was presented five minutes after the last study or testing session, the study-study-study-study (SSSS) group initially scored better, recalling 81 percent of the passage as opposed to 75 percent for the repeated-test group.

However, tested just two days later, the study-only group had forgotten much of what they had learned, already scoring slightly lower than the repeated-test group. Tested one week later, the study-test-test-test group scored dramatically better, remembering 61 percent of the passage as compared with only 40 percent by the study-only group.

The study-only group had read the passage about 14 times, but still recalled less than the repeated testing group, which had read the passage only 3.4 times in its one-and-only study session.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to give you a quiz on this so that you will remember it better.

Update: I did a bit of checking, and there is a quiz plugin for WordPress. So now you can fix this post in your long-term memory by taking the quiz.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.