To pass an exam – do an exam

To ride a bike - Ride a bike

Although the debate around the value of examinations (testing) is set to continue, new research from Kent State University in the US suggests that examinations aid learning by making the brain develop more efficient ways of storing information. Dr. Katherine Rawson, associate professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychology, and former Kent State graduate student Mary Pyc published their research findings in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of the journal Science. 

“Taking practice tests – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something from memory – can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to remember that information again later,” Rawson said. 

In the article titled “Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis,” Rawson and Pyc reported an experiment indicating that at least one reason why testing is good for memory is that testing supports the use of more effective encoding strategies. In particular the brain comes up with mental keywords – called mediators – which trigger memories which they would not do when studying only.

 I have to say that this comes as no surprise to me nor would it to any student or anyone who has ever read a book on memory techniques.   It does however add some significant evidence to support the use of testing or mock examinations as a means of preparation for the real thing.

 To pass examinations you require much more than just memory techniques, and in many ways all this research* has done is show that you can recall certain words far more easily if you link them via another word, the mediator, and then test to find out if you can in fact remember them. But because you can’t pass an exam without remembering what you have learned it does mean that by spending a little more time in encoding the information and by testing yourself afterwards you must improve your chances of passing.

 To my mind the research still has some way to go in recognising the other benefits of doing practice exams or tests, and I should add looking at the answers. For example do they not give a very clear indication of the standard required, provide focus as to what is important and what is not, give a concise summary of key parts of the syllabus, show how the knowledge should be applied in the context of the question and improve your level of concentration knowing that you will be tested latter, I could go on.

 How does this help – some tips

 When trying to get something into your head, don’t just read it, although reading is a method of learning, it is not very effective when it comes to remembering. Reading is largely an auditory process; you say the words in your head. Ever heard the saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. At the same time as reading, underline the key words and make notes with those key words. The very process of extracting them from the text will help. Next you need to remember those key words, well why not link them with a story (A mediator) or with single words as illustrated in the study. There are several memory techniques that use the principle of association to link words, check out the “stack and link and number rhyme” systems. See video below for an example of how to use the number rhyme system.

 And then of course you need to test yourself and your ability to recall those key words afterwards.

 So be in confident and inspired that what you new has now been proven and that  tests are not just about finding out if you will pass or fail the exam, they are an integral and vital part of the learning process, and that’s a fact.

 *In the research they asked students to remember Swahili-English word pairs, such as ‘wingu – cloud and use a mediator (wingu’ sounds like ‘wing’ – the mediator, birds have wings and fly in the ‘clouds) to link the two.

For more thoughts on what this means – click 

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