The benefits of retrieval through testing

Audrey Lee. 01/08/2021

Students begin to write their responses to test questions in a classroom setting. (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

In the United States, assessments at school often trigger stress, anxiety and fear within students. Parents and teachers have also been against testing because it forces teachers to focus specifically on material that will be on exams rather than helping students improve upon critical thinking. Despite the opposition, recent studies have proven that taking tests, a form of retrieval, helps students remember what they have learned with more success compared to other techniques often favored by educators.

According to The New York Times, research published on Science showed that those who took a test after reading a passage could recall the information with more success later on compared to students who repeatedly studied the material or drew concept maps (diagrams that connect terms and information in briefly organized boxes or circles).

This test-taking method was referred to as a retrieval practice test. To retrieve information is to access information previously learned when needed. In other words, it is to recall memories stored in one’s brain. The second and third methods are probably familiar, as students often cram the night before by repeatedly studying material or even hours before the exam, and teachers often encourage the use of concept maps so that students can draw connections between several seemingly unconnected concepts taught in class.

When students were asked how much information they thought they would remember a week later, those who took the test predicted they would remember less than those who were assigned the other two methods of studying; however, the results proved otherwise. A week later, students took exams that asked for short answer questions as well as a concept map. Contrary to the expectation that the concept-mappers would perform better since they already made one before, students who took the retrieval practice test were more successful since they could recall more information. Thus, this study shows that retrieval practices are much more effective and efficient in comparison to elaborative studying.

Moreover, an article from Edutopia provides further examples of research studies that proved retrieval practice tests before exams allowed students to remember a greater percentage of the content compared to those who simply studied. Additionally, tests can be beneficial when given frequently because they provide immediate feedback, allowing students to focus on specific concepts they did not clearly understand or need assistance with.

The fact that cramming the day before a test is often less successful compared to other studying techniques can be supported by two reasons. First, cramming the day before is often a result of procrastinating, which will typically lead to a lack of sleep since the student will most likely study late at night. This supports the idea that many students who cram will not have sufficient sleep before the day of an exam.

Many people have been told that in order to do well on a test, they need a good night’s sleep. So why is this related to how well one can recall information? An article from InnerDrive states that retrieval practices help improve memory since they “create stronger memory traces” and increase the chances of the information becoming long-term memory. The transfer of short-term memory to long-term memory is called consolidation. In short, there are three steps in the process of memory according to WebMD and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): encoding (when a new memory trace forms based on the information perceived), consolidation (where memories are stabilized and less susceptible to being forgotten) and retrieval (when previously stored information is recalled). Sleep is correlated with the second step, consolidation, since there are considerably fewer distractions in the brain when you are asleep compared to when you are awake, when the brain is preoccupied with constant encoding or retrieval.

Second, these students often study by repeatedly reading the material. The popularity of this study technique can be linked to the false sense of confidence it provides to students. According to InnerDrive, re-reading a passage will increase the “ease or fluency with which it is read and can lead to the student believing they have mastered its content - when really all they have done is familiarise themselves with the text and the ordering of the words.” While students will have the illusion that they know a lot of the information, using this method as the only way to study is risky, as students can easily forget the information without practices such as quizzes or simply writing down the material.

Cramming the night before a test is not an efficient study method, but it is unrealistic to set the expectation of remembering something for a longer period of time after just one retrieval practice. While it is not expected that students will be excited about a test, assessments are crucial and beneficial, as they are made in order to increase the chances of retaining the information for a long period of time, possibly for years or even decades.

Cover Photo: (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Audrey Lee