The memory test

Quizzing yourself while studying beats using the highlighter

Pop quiz: You’ve got a vocabulary list to learn for your French class. What’s the best way to study?

You might be tempted to stare at the words for a long time — reading, then reading again. And again. After this exercise — with more staring, followed by more reading — you might hope the words and translations should have been copied into your head like songs into an iPod.

There may be a better way to remember: More testing! We often think of testing as a way to measure how much information a person remembers, but research shows that testing can be a powerful study strategy as well.

a pile of books with some books open
Researchers asked college students to learn some Swahili words. Those in one group were quizzed on new words as they studied, those in the other just read the words.Viorika/iStock
In a recent experiment conducted at Kent State University in Ohio, researchers found that students who were quizzed as they studied scored higher on vocabulary tests than the students who only read and reread.

That’s not too surprising — teachers have told students for thousands of years that self-testing is a good study strategy. But Mary Pyc and Katherine Rawson, the psychologists behind the Kent State study, wanted to know why small quizzes work better than staring at the words.

In their experiment, 118 college students were told to learn a list of 48 Swahili words. They were given the English translations of the words. (Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a language spoken in many parts of Africa.) The students were divided into two groups. In one group, students studied by reading and rereading the words and English translations. In the other group, the students were shown the words and then quizzed on the English meanings.

Each student in the trial also told Pyc and Rawson their “keyword mediators.” A keyword mediator is a word or phrase that helps a student remember. For example, the Swahili word wingu means “cloud.” Many of the students in the study said they noticed that wingu contains “wing” — which might remind the English speakers of a bird in the clouds. In this case, the word “wing” is the keyword mediator.

One week later, all 118 students were tested on the 48 Swahili words, and the students who had studied with quizzes scored higher. Those early quizzes might have helped the students use the mediators when it counted, on the final test.

Pyc and Rawson then asked the students whether they remembered their keyword mediators. Students who had been quizzed as they studied could more often remember these keywords, when compared with the students who only read.

Pyc says students often think they’ve learned something just because they’ve stared at it for a long time. “The illusion is, you read something and think you’ll remember it. But if you don’t try to retrieve it, you don’t know if you know it,” Pyc told Science News. She is now a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, but at the time of the study she was a graduate student at Kent State.

Students often study by reading text and highlighting or underlining key ideas. Then, to study for a test, they look at their own markings. That approach might not be effective for students, says Henry Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the new study.

“They think they know it because they have read it so many times, but they haven’t practiced the skill they’ll need on the test, which is retrieval,” he told Science News.

There’s an old joke that asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The punch line is, “practice, practice, practice.” In this case, how do you get ready for that next vocabulary test in French class. Practice test, practice test, practice test.

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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