Hitting the Books: Training for Tests

When we think of learning, we often think of reading. Reading is one of the ways we acquire new information, particularly in school. A lot of the work I do with students relates to reading and a lot of the reading my students do is associated with test taking.  To that end, many of my students think that reading is only important for test taking, but that’s for another blog.

One of the skills required for test-taking (and preparation), is the ability to remember and access what is remembered. This ability, often referred to as active recall (Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott, 2011), can be more significant than reading, in enhancing test performance. That may not be a popular notion because it is often associated with “teaching to a test,” or benefiting from the testing effect (Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L.., 2008). However, what I’m actually describing has to do with a learning process that includes reading, understanding, and efficiently accessing information. The test becomes a way of consolidating and accessing learned material, rather than just a tool for memorizing a bunch of facts and reciting them.

Test-taking actually serves an important function in the process of learning by consolidating information stored in a person’s memory. This is why students often leave a test saying they understand the material better after taking the test, then they did beforehand. This phenomenon can be explained using a training analogy.

Most runners train for marathons. It would be unlikely for a person to run a marathon without training for it, even if this person is a professional athlete. When runners train for races they build muscles and muscle memory. They learn how to recruit their muscles and strength, having practiced it during long runs and short, so they can endure the distance and run faster. The same principles hold true for students taking tests.

Tests are designed to see what a student knows. They get us to think about what we’ve read or what we’ve reviewed. But tests also require us to use many processes, such as decision-making, problem-solving, and memory, to name a few. Therefore, knowing a specific algorithm in math or the toxic effects of a medication on an organ system in medicine, is as much about recalling information (knowledge), as it is about knowing how to answer a multiple choice question.

Other than decision-making, problem-solving, and memory, multiple choice questions also involve knowing how to take a test. For example, a student must understand a test question, not read too much or too little into the question, and identify and utilize a process of elimination to select the correct answer, in order to be successful on a test. This is very different than knowing which algorithm to use in a math problem. Both types of knowledge are needed on tests but reading for learning only emphasizes one of these types.

Just like the practice runs that help a runner improve his speed or endurance in a race, the practice questions help a student access efficient strategies and knowledge on a test. Without this practice, the automaticity with which an individual may respond to a test question will be slowed because the time needed to recall information when it is not well organized or practiced, increases, just like the speed of a runner who has not trained well for a race.

Reading is an important priority in learning, but it does not guarantee that a student will remember all relevant information or excel on a test (Callender & McDaniel, 2009). Practicing questions is an additional step in consolidating new information into long-term memory. The research supporting that active retrieval produces better retention than passive reading and rereading has been discussed in the education and cognitive psychology literature for more than 100 years (Abbott, 1909).

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