Memory is only half of it: Training for tests

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes

I’ve noticed an interesting trend when working with medical schools and hospitals to design curriculum. When students/residents find themselves underperforming on important exams, they often change their study habits to include continuous rereading of material. Although deep reading is crucial for developing a fund of knowledge, it does not take into account the actual mental process of taking an exam.

One of the skills required for effective test taking is the ability to remember and fluidly access what is remembered. This ability, often referred to as active recall (Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott, 2011), can be more significant than continuous rereading in enhancing test performance. This 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 instead of just a tool for memorizing and reciting numerous facts.

Test taking actually serves an important function in the process of learning because it consolidates information stored in a person’s memory. This is why students often leave a test feeling they understand the material better after taking an exam. I often explain this phenomenon using a training analogy.

Most runners train for marathons. Even for a professional athlete, it would be challenging for a person to run a marathon without proper training.  When runners train for races they build both muscle and muscle memory. Come race time, runners aren’t simply relying on the capabilities of their muscles. They are also relying on a familiarity with the act of running. This familiarity—achieved through practice—allows runners to endure and push themselves further.

The same principles hold true for students taking tests. Tests are designed to see what a student knows. By their very nature, tests get students to think about what they have read and reviewed. But effective test taking requires multiple mental processes, such as decision-making, problem solving, and memory. Consequently, knowing a specific algorithm or the toxic effects of a medication on an organ system is as much about recalling information as it is about knowing how to answer a multiple choice question.

In addition to decision-making, problem solving, and memory, success with multiple-choice questions depends on the process of knowing how to take a test. 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. All this occurs under time constraints. This is very different than knowing which algorithm to use in a math problem. When it comes to effective test taking, content and process are inextricably linked. Continuous rereading does not account for process.

Just like the practice runs that help a runner improve his speed or endurance in a race, practice questions help a student efficiently access information and engage in various test-taking strategies to enhance performance. Without this practice, the automaticity with which an individual may respond to a test question will be hindered because of the increased time needed to recall information when it is not well organized.

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 and needed 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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