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Why Tests and Quizzes Are Good For You

Remember those pop quizzes you hated in high school? Turns out they actually made you learn better.

A study out of Kent State University, published in this week's issue of the journal Science, finds that practice tests and pop quizzes are very helpful to the process of learning. The reason, according to the researchers: People devise clues and devices to help themselves retain and remember information. Quizzes allow them to see which of their tricks works and which don't, allowing them a chance to revise the ineffective ones and recall more material.

Researchers gave 118 students 48 Swahili words and their English meanings. The participants, at the scientists' behest, developed ways to remember the new words using English ones that were similar to them. As noted on the blog Science Now, "For example, many students chose "wing" to remember that the Swahili word "wingu" means cloud."

Half the group then studied, while the other took a pop quiz. Then, all the students took one of three tests a week later: a normal, Swahili-to-English translation exam; one where the students had to provide their memory word; and one where the researchers actually tipped the students off by supplying their device word.

The undergrads that had to take the pop quiz blew their competition away, recalling three times as many words as those who just studied.

A recent New York Times article about study habits, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, noted that testing was a great way to learn.

Dr. [Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis] uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example): “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.


The new research helps confirms that effect. So, call that one, pop quiz-happy teacher from high school who you once thought was evil, and thank her for figuring out how to get the material she was teaching you to stick in your craw.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user inju.

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