Testing boosts memory, study doesn’t

This is why football players remember the games better than they remember the practices.

Is this really news? It was a jarring reminder to me. Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science (just before his blog was swallowed up by the many-tentacled Seed Magazine empire) noted a study that shows testing improves performance more than study.

But a new study reveals that the tests themselves do more good for our ability to learn that the many hours before them spent relentlessly poring over notes and textbook. The act of repeatedly retrieving and using learned information drives memories into long-term storage, while repetitive revision produced almost no benefits.

More quizzes instead of warm-up studies? More tests? Longer tests? What do you think? Certainly this questions the wisdom of high-stakes, end of education testing; it also calls into question the practice of evaluating teachers solely on the basis of test scores.  Much grist for the discussion mill.

Here’s the citation to the study: Karpicke, J.D., Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152408

Karpicke is at Purdue; Roediger is at Washington University in St. Louis.

11 Responses to Testing boosts memory, study doesn’t

  1. toby says:

    I always found that the best way to prepare for a test was to to get one’s hands on as many past test questions as possible, prepare answers and compare with the textbooks or lecture notes.


  2. びっくり says:

    This doesn’t seem terribly new. We have known for years that building connections between items in our memory, increases ability to recall, speed of recall, and space required to store the information. It would seem to follow that application of information would teach us how to synthesize connections between data that would not normally be studied together. However, you have to study it at some point to make it available in the first place.

    I would recommend periods of study followed by periods of practical application.


  3. […] reported last month in Science is being discussed around the blogosphere under titles like “Testing boosts memory, study doesn’t,” and “Testing, not studying, makes for strong long-term […]


  4. Katherine says:

    I can only speak from experience…

    A test is set and the students have to complete it by themselves.

    Homework is set and the majority either copy or don’t do it.

    If the schools were to introduce new and exciting ways of experimenting the information, thus helping the students understand every single word, which i find helps to enjoy doing homework, then it would be a different matter entirely.


  5. Rebecca Aguilar says:

    Fascinating findings! There have been a number of recent research on study strategies. One by Carol S. Dweck suggests changing learner mindset toward studying can actually improve academic achievement:


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Can I just point out that the blog is very much alive within the belly of the monster, unchanged and highly resistant to digestion :-)

    Oh, gee, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise!

    Great blog. When they’re done, will there be any good science-related blog outside their domain, though?


  7. Rebecca says:

    The study appears to compare repetition with testing. However, we know that rich context, application, and presenting information in a number of different ways works well for learning, while drilling generally does not. This is not new information, by any stretch of the imagination. “Poring over textbooks” hasn’t been the norm in classrooms for a long time. One has to wonder why researchers compared testing with a completely discredited method of teaching, rather than with methods that work. If they had compared testing with effective teaching, I expect their results would have been very different.


  8. HannahJ says:

    Very interesting! Another operational definition that might clarify, perhaps, is what exactly the kind of “study” studied entails. There are a lot more study strategies that might be termed more effective than reading notes over and over – explaining it to someone else, elaborative rehearsal, using it in projects, etc. (But could some of THOSE be termed “testing” from what I read above?)


  9. Neal says:

    Ignoring standardized testing, this does seem to indicate that we should have more in-class tests and fewer (if any) homework assignments, which makes perfect sense to me.


  10. Dorid says:

    It seems to me that this indicates that practice or use is what drives learning, not sitting stagnant and reading material over and over again. If this is the case, a strong case could also be made for authentic assessment. I’m concerned that this kind of interpretation will lead schools to conclude that they need more testing and less teaching… a trend many districts seem to be delving into anyway.

    Retrieving information is one thing… and there are many venues in which a student can retrieve that information, from home work, to in class discussion, to class projects and beyond. The problem is how we get the information to our students. I would argue that this study would say that rote reading and writing, lectures, and any other method that excludes student participation is ineffective in long term learning, and that frequent reinforcement is needed to ensure retention.

    What is meant by “testing” in the study is very different from what most people think of as testing: Sitting in a room with multiple choice questions and a #2 pencil. The blog discussion doesn’t delineate between that kind of testing and testing (or checking/ practicing) in any other sense, although it does mention self testing as a strategy not often used by students.

    The important thing in this study, and the thing that seems to be getting lost here, is that it is repeated reinforcement or use of the information that is important to retention. Current testing and re-testing, especially standardized testing, where the content is often different and students do not have the benefit of seeing where their errors are (and the correct answers) is in no way vindicated by this study, rather the opposite is true. Teaching to a specific test and not teaching and reinforcing concepts is ineffective.


  11. Ed Yong says:

    Can I just point out that the blog is very much alive within the belly of the monster, unchanged and highly resistant to digestion :-)


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