Quizzes — A Great Learning Tool That Should Not Be Overused

FIRE Solutions’ exam prep courses include quizzes that test your knowledge of the materials taught in our lessons. While quizzes help determine a student’s level of knowledge of a topic, they also help the student to learn and retain the information. Research from Washington University in St. Louis indicates that quizzes may be a student’s best friend when it comes to understanding and retaining information for the long haul. But don’t over-quiz — here’s the science behind our strategy:

Henry L. Roediger III, Ph.D., a distinguished professor at Washington University and an internally-recognized scholar of human memory function, co-authored a study with Jeffrey Karpicke, a research colleague in the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences. He says, “Our study indicates that testing can be used as a powerful means for improving learning, not just assessing it. Students who self-test frequently while studying on their own may be able to learn more, in much less time, than they might by simply studying the material over and over again. Incorporating more frequent…testing into a course may improve students’ learning and promote retention of material long after a course has ended.”

In Phase 1 of the study, students were put into two groups:

  • Group A was given five minutes to read a passage of prose. They then took immediate free-recall tests about what they’d just read but were not given any feedback or told which questions were answered correctly.
  • Group B was given five minutes to read the same passage, but were not tested; instead, they were given another five minutes to read the passage again.

Phase 2 of the study involved each of the students taking a retention test at different intervals — five minutes, two days, or one week — after completing Phase 1. Here are the results:

  • Retention test five minutes after Phase 1: Group B, given the extra five minutes to read the passage, scored higher, recalling 81% of the material vs. 75% for those in Group A who were not given the extra time but instead took quizzes.
  • Retention test two days after Phase 1: Group B, who was not quizzed, demonstrated that they were already forgetting much of what they’d learned, scoring lower than those in Group A.
  • Retention test a week after Phase 1: Group A, who had been quizzed after reading the passage, scored 61% as compared to 40% for those in Group B who had been given extra time to read the passage but were not quizzed.

Reading the material and then taking a quiz was more effective for long-term memory retention than simply reading the material over and over. As Dr. Roediger commented, “Clearly, testing enhances long-term retention through some mechanism that is both different from and more effective than restudy alone.” He offers a couple of theories as to why this is the case:

  • We learn more efficiently when put in difficult situations, such as being quizzed on materials we’ve had time to read but not time to commit to memory.
  • Taking a quiz after reading the material forced the students to use the same recall mechanisms they would need when being tested on the materials later.

The fact that those in Group B who took their second test only five minutes after the first phase of the study scored higher than Group A indicates that repeated reading of the materials, or “cramming,” is effective for short-term retention, but not for long-term retention.

While this study shows that taking a quiz helps students retain information for the long-term, it does not indicate that taking the same quiz multiple times increases this retention. In fact, students should not take a quiz or exam a second time unless a significant amount of time has passed since the first time the quiz or exam was taken, as they may recognize the correct answers without necessarily knowing why. Human beings have a tendency to remember what we’ve recently seen, even if we don’t intend to. This unintentional memorization of the answers leads to inflated scores and a false sense of accomplishment — a recipe for disaster if you go into take your exam thinking that you know more than you do. As a general rule, students should take a quiz or exam for a second time only if it is suggested by a FIRE Solutions trainer, or if at least one full week has passed since the first time the quiz or exam was taken.

When it comes time to take a quiz, don’t get nervous; instead, embrace the opportunity to let the quiz help you implant the information in your long-term memory, and to learn from the questions you miss.