It is frustrating when I can’t remember something. I would like to think that my mind is a steel trap. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Minutes ago, I found myself thinking, “Why can’t I remember the name of that book? I know it’s in my head somewhere: I just read the title a second ago on that piece of paper. Where’s that piece of paper? … ”
Well, to be truthful, it is pretty hard to tell if that information was actually put into my memory in the first place (i.e., if it was encoded) or if I was just having difficulty getting the information out (i.e., retrieving it). Nonetheless, there is a bounty of research that tries to figure out what kinds of techniques help with learning and memory and a surprising one —testing— has been shown to be very beneficial.
A great thing about this technique is it is relatively easy to do and as a colleague of mine, Jessica Logan, and I recently found out, it is helpful for both younger and older learners (find original Psychology and Aging article here).
In the study, we found that testing helped adults of various ages learn and remember more about important, everyday things, like armadillos. (We’re from Texas- that seems like an important topic to us!). We wanted to see if the benefits of testing applied to people of various ages, so we included people in our study who were college undergraduates (the kind used often in psychological research), but we also included younger adults from the community (aged 18-25) and older adults from the community (aged 55-65).
For the experiment, everyone engaged in an initial study session (reading four National Geographic articles on armadillos, black holes, the human heart, and tsunamis). Next, each learner restudied two of those articles and also took a quiz on the other two articles. After that (or 2 days later, depending on what group each person was assigned to), each person was given a final test on all four articles.
Memory was much better on that final test for the topics that had been previously tested compared to those that had only been restudied. For example, if you did the experiment and took an initial test on black holes and the human heart, but only restudied armadillos and tsunamis, you would have performed really well on the final test for questions involving black holes and the human heart (the previously tested topics), but not as well on the questions involving armadillos or tsunamis (the restudied topics). An important thing to note, is that learners were asked to refrain from studying the topics in between the experimental sessions (i.e., if they had to come back two days later to do the final test, they did not study the topics in between, meaning the benefits from testing were not related to finding out what they got wrong and going back over the material, but to actually retrieving the information in the previous test session). Also, of importance, age group did not matter. Everyone benefitted from testing and the benefits were seen immediately and after 2 days.
So what does this all mean? Testing actually helps you remember things more than staring at a piece of paper and rereading the information does and definitely more than osmosis does (sorry!). Perhaps instead of staring at a piece of paper and rereading the title several times, I should have tried to quiz myself about the title. Then, I would have been much more likely to remember it.
So, even though the idea of taking a test may make your palms sweat or may even make you want to fake having a terrible and rare (but temporary) illness, give it a try. Of course, you may want to save this technique for things that you actually want to remember, like the name of your new boss, and not things as seemingly trivial as a book title, but you get the idea. Also, if you quiz yourself, you don’t have to show anyone your grade! You can just reap the benefits of a well-deserved memory.