Friday, January 21, 2011

Wanna Learn? Take the Test

Taking a practice test beats studying -- even cramming -- when it comes to learning.

A NYTimes story on this research is all about efficient retrieval of information, a topic near and dear to the heart of this blog.  It's based on a pair of careful experiments that pit four approaches to learning.  Rather than spend the words here repeating the methodology, you can check out the links yourself.

But for me here's the really cool part:
In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite. 
 I love this -- people who took the practice test perceived themselves as learning the least when, in fact, they did the best when it came to learning the material.  This gets into projection, into expectations, and probably a little bit of obsessive-compulsive behavior due to a lack of good, solid cramming.  When we take a practice test, we recognize gaps in what we know and at the subconscious level perhaps we take care of business, figuring it out.  There's a lot to be explored here.

This isn't easy to translate into the real world of media, politics, and knowledge -- I just find it fascinating -- but it does get at our ability to underestimate, and overestimate, what we know depending on the kind of "news" we consume.  I've written at length about how certain "news" or media content can lead more to the perception we are informed rather than actually informing us (entertainment programs such as The Daily Show, talk radio, etc.).  I'm certain this recent study is getting at the same or a similar mechanism.  And that's heartening.

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