#scichat nytimes: to really learn, quit studying and take a test.

Test-Taking Cements Knowledge Better Than Studying, Researchers Say.  
The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

I feel like this headline plays on common assumptions about what study is and why students do it.   You might picture a late night in a library with a pile of books and a high lighting marker.  The aim of this activity would be to remember the highlighted material for a test, possibly the next morning in only a few hours.  Asking students to “quit studying and take a test” bring up a lot of questions in that case.  No study at all?  Practice tests before an exam?  What if practice tests are not available?  ARE WE DOOMED?

What it fails to mention, I think, is that plenty of commonly known and used study methods do ask students to recall and retrieve information.  Preview, Question, Read & Review can be used to recall the answers to questions you made before reading.  Split notes or writing key questions in the margin is another way of making a practice quiz for yourself.  Flashcards, as much as they invoke thoughts of rote memorization, can be a method of recall and retrieval.  Is this kind of study just as useless?  I don’t think that’s what they intend to say here.  

In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions.

Aha.  So by study, they mean “re-read the text.”  

A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.
In this initial phase, researchers reported, students who made diagrams while consulting the passage included more detail than students asked to recall what they had just read in an essay.
What I notice here is that students were allowed to consult the text while they did their concept mapping, and included more detail.  This indicates to me that these students may not have been thinking about which details are the most important, but only aiming for completeness by adding as much as they could.  In a sense, they overloaded themselves with too much detail and very little relevance.  

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test. 

Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard who advocates constructivism — the idea that children should discover their own approach to learning, emphasizing reasoning over memorization — said in an e-mail that the results “throw down the gauntlet to those progressive educators, myself included.”“Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping,” he continued, “are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”
Isn’t it possible that the retrieval essay also a form of constructivist approach?  Rather than copying details as they did in the concept map, students decided what was important to remember.  Then they remembered it.  Many constructivist activities (such as roundtable lists and vocabulary sorts) are not used like the overly-detailed concept map, but can involve a lot of challenge and retrieval.  The key point here seems to be whether or not the students were allowed to consult the text as they prepared their study materials.   Consulting the text may have resulted in the inclusion of too many details, while the retrieval test forced students to remember the most relevant points.  

Here is what I do.  Before each major chapter test, I give my students a practice test.  It includes questions of the same format as the questions that will appear on the test.  Usually they are of similar difficulty to the test questions, but sometimes they are slightly tougher.  The reason I started doing this was so students who struggle with instructions could preview the exact format of the test before test day.  Then, during the actual assessment, students could focus on the content instead of the format.  

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

Now I see that my practice tests may help my students in another way.   Students often attempt the practice test without their books to get a sense of how they might do on the real test.  They sometimes remark during the practice test that they felt they knew it before, but now they feel less confident.  The act of taking the practice test may not only point out what they need to actively review before the test, but help them make a stronger connection to that content in their brains for later.  

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.  

I don’t know either, but it sounds pretty good to me!  

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