Practice testing / Retrieval practice

What it is

Testing yourself using questions about the material you have been studying. The idea is to put away the materials and think actively about/write/sketch everything you know (cued by questions -practice testing- or just recalling everything you remember -retrieval practice-). Then, check the materials to see how accurate you were and whether you missed anything.

How to do it

Finish and start each study session by answering 3-5 questions. Leave the questions in your “question pool” until you have been able to answer it correctly at least 3 times. Methods might include using flashcards (physical or digital [ or]) to test recall or answering the sample questions at the end of a textbook chapter. If no practice questions are available, break the learning goals from your tutorial down into subgoals and formulate questions. Or make questions yourself and share them with your peers.

Another possibility is to combine this strategy with the summarizing strategy, using the ‘Cornell method’ (see summarizing).

Does it work, and why?

Yes, this strategy is highly useful! One study showed 31% more retention after a week for word pairs students were tested on (practice testing) as opposed to word pairs they were simply asked to memorize. Compared to rereading, retention appears to be about 44% better for practice testing. Also, longer intervals are generally more effective. The difficulty with practice testing is that the beneficial effect of testing yourself becomes visible only after a delay while restudying (i.e. rereading) the material gives a slight immediate effect that is lost soon after. In other words, after 5 minutes, students remember more from rereading, after 2 days or 1 week, they remember more if they have tested themselves on the material. One important condition for practice testing to work is that the retrieval is effortful and stimulates deep processing. Also, getting feedback on your answers is important.

The reason why it works is not yet completely clear. One theory is that practice testing triggers a mental search of long-term memory that activates related information, forming multiple memory pathways that make the information easier to access. You could compare it to playing tennis: in order to be good at a match (exam), you need to practice the game (answering practice questions, practicing the retrieval). By simply watching tennis games (rereading), you will not gain muscle power (retrieval strength), to be able to perform well.