Want to memorize and truly understand something new? Test yourself

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For a moment, think back to your days spent in the classroom. You were probably reminded on a daily basis by your elementary school teachers to go home and study that day’s lessons. That way, you would perform well when it came time for a test. How many of those lessons, though, did you really understand and not just memorize? 

For many of us, the act of studying was a simple routine of repetition. After reading a piece of information over and over, eventually, it sunk in, and we were able to regurgitate it come test time. There’s a big difference, however, between simple memorization of information and a true understanding of a topic complete with the ability to make inferences on said subject matter.

Simple memorization of facts may be enough to pass the seventh grade, but it’s rarely enough in competitive professional landscapes. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently investigated how to improve inference skills, and found that testing oneself is much more effective than simple memorization through repetition. 

“We do a lot of our learning outside the classroom. Because so much of our learning is self-regulated, we need to look into which learning strategies are most beneficial,” comments Jessica Siler, a graduate student in psychology at Illinois, in a press release. “We found that being tested on the material led to better memory and better inference of new images.”

The study was conducted over the course of three phases. First, participants were shown some images of various birds and given information on the birds’ families. Then, half the subjects were told to memorize the bird information through traditional studying (repetition), while the other half were told to study the bird data by testing themselves. 

“During testing, they were asked to guess to which family the bird belonged and then they were given feedback. Alternatively, during restudy, they were given the picture with the name of the family and they simply retyped the name,” Siler explains.

After the second phase, all of the participants were tested on the bird information. Each person was shown a series of bird pictures, some they had been shown before and some that were completely new, and asked to assign the birds into specific families.

“There were two kinds of tests we used,” says professor of psychology Aaron Benjamin, director of the Human Memory and Cognition Lab and an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “We wanted to test whether they remembered seeing a particular bird and whether they were able to infer which family it belonged to.”

The participants who originally learned the information via testing in phase two were able to make much more accurate inferences regarding the new birds’ families than the other portion of study subjects who simply memorized the information through restudy.

“Designing these experiments takes a lot of precision,” Benjamin adds. “They are learning multiple families of birds and you need to arrange the stimuli carefully so that you don’t confound the results.”

Participants were followed up with a full 25 days later, in order to assess if the information they had learned was retained after a few weeks. Sure enough, those who spent more time testing themselves were better equipped to recall and infer regarding what they had learned.

The next time you’re faced with a new challenge at work, or maybe just want to learn a new skill, try testing yourself on the new material frequently. You’ll be that much more likely to pick up on the nuances of the topic than if you simply memorized information.

The full study can be found here, published in Memory & Cognition.