Whenever your brain is exposed to new information, it likes to ask the same question that many students like to ask: “Is this going to be on the test?” Since the answer is usually no, the brain’s default setting is to forget most of the information we encounter on a daily basis.
Even at school, when the information usually is going to show up on a test, the default setting is still to forget. You might consciously know that there’s an upcoming test, but your brain is unconvinced. This is especially true for situations where the information could easily be looked up online or in a textbook. Your brain is no fool; it knows that those resources are out there, so it knows that forgetting is a safe choice.
The solution is to take actions that make it obvious to your brain that the test is forthcoming. How? By taking practice tests.
That’s right, the best way to switch out of forgetting mode and into memory-formation mode is to take practice tests. By testing yourself, you make it crystal clear to your brain that the information is, in fact, going to be on the test.
Recall practice is essential to memory formation because memories are not merely formed by putting information into the brain; they are also formed by pulling information back out. 1,2 The act of retrieving the knowledge is nearly as important as the act of absorbing it in the first place.
It works because every time you try to remember some piece of information without using the book or your notes or the internet, you’re communicating to your brain that you want to be able to remember that information. Hence, self-testing is really a special version of convincing your brain to care. You’re acting like you need to know the information from memory, so your brain decides that you must actually need to know it.
Self-testing is, in fact, one of the most highly regarded study techniques by learning experts; it is thoroughly supported by scientific research.1,2 In other words, if you want to get the most bang for your buck when you’re putting in study time, take practice tests. Self-testing accelerates you progress along the mastery path.
Practice tests also work because they provide opportunities to learn from mistakes and failures. By getting things wrong on the practice test, your brain gets to experience the pain of being wrong–the discomfort of not knowing something that you’d like to know.1 Your brain wants to avoid this discomfort, so it devotes energy to learning the material.
Furthermore, as I often tell students, you’d rather fail a practice test at home a couple days before the actual exam than fail the real test in class. Heed the motto of Spartan warriors:
“He who sweats more in training bleeds less in war.”
All too often, student wrongly believe that they know all the material and so choose not to study. Well, nothing cures overconfidence like bombing a practice test. Self-testing can create a surprising amount of motivation to study. If, on your first practice test, you only know 25% of the material, that should inspire you to get to work.
And self-testing only works if you don’t use your notes or other resources while taking a practice test. Even if you’re truly unprepared, self-testing must involve taking risks and making your best guesses without any help. As unpleasant as it is to feel the discomfort of staring at a blank page, it’s necessary. It hurts more to make a full guess and write out a complete answer that is totally wrong, and that which hurts more creates deeper learning.
Of course, after you give it your best effort without notes or the book, check your answers and use resources to write your wrongs. Build more written product based on what was hardest for you. Spend some time studying that, and then test yourself on everything again. The second time around, it’s tempting to just test yourself on that which you got wrong on the first test, but the research is clear: You’ll do better if you test yourself on everything again.2
But maybe you don’t have time for multiple rounds of practice tests. Perhaps you’ve waited until the last minute and are now cramming for tomorrow’s exam. Well, self-testing is also the fastest way to discover what aspects of the material you don’t know. Perhaps you already know 50% of the content, but you’re not sure which 50%. You want to get the most out of your time, so you’d like to only study that which you’re missing. A single practice test taken before studying can therefore save you a great deal of time.
Practice tests are often available online, in your textbook, or from the teacher, but you can always make your own. One version is to simply pull out a blank piece of paper and write everything you can remember about the topic. As much as possible, elaborate on the ideas as you recall them. How are these ideas related to other things you know? What is their significance?
It’s best to test yourself on paper, but that’s not the only option. Mental recall is a less-powerful version of a self-test, but it’s one that can be done anywhere. During downtime, see how much you can remember of what you were just studying. Flashcards and Quizlet are helpful, too, especially if you build those resources yourself.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that the best way to convince your brain that something is going to be on the test is to test yourself.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press, 2014.
2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
Title Image: DeBrincat, Brendan. “Pencil N’ Paper.” http://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.
The Mastery Path: Loper, Chris. 2016.