Take a Test to Learn Best

A recent study conducted at Purdue University and published in the journal, Science, indicates that taking a test immediately after reading material actually aids learning. The findings appear to demonstrate the power of “active reading” as a means to improving memory. As an article in the January 21 “Education” section of The New York Times reported, “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.” These alternate methods included repeatedly studying the material, a common “cramming” practice, which leads to false confidence and appears to provide only short-term memory. Another method was “concept mapping” in which subjects transformed the material they read into diagrams.
All 200 research subjects received a scientific passage. After reading, some were asked to engage in a “retrieval test,” in which they wrote what they remembered about the article for 10 minutes. Then they re-read the passage and took another retrieval test. Other subjects either drew diagrams organizing the information that they read or studied the passage for five minutes each in four different sessions. The retrieval test group proved effective in remembering the most information more than a week after the initial exposure to the article. While cognitive scientists don’t yet understand the exact mechanism for such results, they speculate that “. . . by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.”
The results also point to further evidence to eschew “constructivist” or “reform” approaches to math. The Times quotes famed Harvard educator, Howard Gardner, “The idea that children should discover their own approach to learning, emphasizing reasoning over memorization — “throw(s) 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.” Thus, he admits, that no empirical evidence exists that the constructivist method is superior to traditional methods of storing and retrieving information. So, to retain the most information over the long term, read actively and then take a test!

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