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.

mastery path diagram

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.

Works Cited

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.

Image Credits

Title Image: DeBrincat, Brendan. “Pencil N’ Paper.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

The Mastery Path: Loper, Chris. 2016.

Write Your Wrongs


Today I want to focus on just one aspect of the importance of written product: correcting mistakes.

Let’s imagine a student who gets a test handed back to him. It had 30 questions, of which he missed six. Many students will simply look at the score at the top of the page and say, “Okay, 80%, not bad.” and be done with it.

Whether or not we’re satisfied with the score we earn on an exam is actually irrelevant. We should always figure out what went wrong with any question that we missed. Mistakes are the best way to learn. If you got 99 out of 100 correct, there’s still something to learn. Also consider that if you guessed on any questions and got them right, those still reflect gaps in your knowledge.

If a student understands this and wants to learn from his errors, then he’ll probably just look at the questions he missed and try to figure out what went wrong. He’ll use his eyes, his brain, and if he can’t figure it out himself, his mouth and his ears. Unfortunately, these are insufficient. He also needs to use two hands to pull out pencil and paper, physically make notes, and correct his errors. He needs to write his wrongs.

The act of writing achieves two things simultaneously, both very important for learning. It builds notes for future reference, and it convinces your brain to care.

Anything that is returned to you with a grade that you get to hold onto can be used as a reference in the future. If you make corrections and take notes on all your tests and quizzes and make sure to save them in an organized way, they become a powerful tool you can use to study for finals. All of the content you found to be the most difficult during the year will be laid out for you.

Unfortunately, many teachers show you the graded tests but then collect them. Here, making note of the questions you missed is critical and must be done quickly. Your teacher may not allow you to write down the actual questions you missed because he wants to reuse the questions on next year’s test–that’s why he’s not letting you keep your test–but you should at least be allowed to write down the types of questions that you missed. Make note of the content that was challenging. At least then you’ll know what you don’t know.

You may need to schedule time with the teacher before or after class to go over the test in detail and make note of what your knowledge gaps are. Going out of your way to advocate for yourself and take charge of your own learning is precisely the sort of thing active-agent students do. The way your tests are handed back in class may not be conducive to correcting your errors, but you always have the power to take charge and find a way to make it happen.

On the other hand, there are teachers who not only let you keep your tests, but also allow you to make corrections to earn back partial credit. If you’re lucky enough to have such a teacher, please take advantage of this opportunity. The points you earn for making those corrections are actually a minor benefit compared to the learning that you achieve in the process and the favor you’re doing for your future self.

Don’t ignore your mistakes. Correct them. And don’t just mentally correct your mistakes. Write your wrongs.

Image Credit

Title Image: Laddir Laddir. “Pencil.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

Two-Handed Learning


One thing I’m frequently asking my students to do is to utilize both hands while studying and doing homework. Most students simply engage whatever they’re doing, whether it is note-taking or math problems, with just their dominant hand. Their non-dominant hand, meanwhile, is under the table doing nothing.

There are a number of practical reasons why I ask for the use of two hands and one, big, psychological reason.

Often the student’s paper is sliding or spinning, causing the work to become both slower and sloppier. Using the non-dominant hand to hold the paper in place is the obvious solution. It allows for both better handwriting and faster work. Although bringing the extra hand into play feels like it’s going to be more effort, it turns out to make the work easier.

The non-dominant hand can also be used as a focus-enhancing tool. Its fingers can be used to pinpoint critical parts of instructions or questions that you’re worried about forgetting. You can use the extra hand to frame key areas of text, making it easier to pull out information that you need. You can use one hand to hold your place in the reading and the other hand to take notes. And the non-dominant hand can be used to cover up distractions on the page, so you can more easily focus on what you’re working on at the moment.

This is one of the strategies we consider mandatory for standardized tests. These tests are time-sensitive, so any technique that makes you more efficient is helpful. Standardized exams are also long and exhausting, so we’re always eager to find ways to reduce cognitive load. Because the second hand can hold your place or keep track of key information, it cuts down on how much we have to hold in our heads. This is particularly critical for the ACT’s science section, in which you should use your non-dominant hand to hone in on the relevant data as you read the question.

On a deeper level, using two hands for homework and studying is a powerful way to convince your brain to care.

The more physically engaged you are, the more your brain sees that you care. The more your brain sees that you care, the harder it will work to help you learn whatever you’re studying. When you’re using both hands, it shows full engagement. When one of your hands is in your lap, in your pocket, under your leg, or clutching your phone, you’re only showing half engagement. Your brain observes this halfhearted effort and decides that whatever you’re trying to learn isn’t really worth putting energy into.

You’ll have to try a little bit harder than this:


Remember, the way your brain decides whether or not to devote resources into figuring something out and forming a strong memory of it is by observing whether or not you actively devote resources–time and energy–into learning it. How hard your brain works to learn something is less about how badly you want to learn it and more about how badly it appears to your brain that you want to learn it. Engaging studying and homework with both hands is a very simple way to show your brain that you care.

Similarly, using two hands is also a quick way to wake yourself up when you’re feeling tired. Because of self-perception, when you become more physically active, you start to feel more alert. Sitting up straight rather than slouching has the same effect. Furthermore, using both hands squares up your shoulders toward the work. The brain sees this and receives the message: “I’m facing this challenge directly.” Full engagement of the body leads to full engagement of the mind.

Also, and this is purely speculative as I’ve seen no research to back it up, the use of your non-dominant hand may help ensure that both hemispheres of your brain are active and receiving ample blood flow. I think this may be the case because, in most people, the left hand is controlled by the right hemisphere and the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere. We do know that any techniques that engage more of the brain facilitate better learning.1 Furthermore, learning, logic, and creativity normally require the use of both hemispheres.2 I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if future fMRI scans show that using your non-dominant hand results in greater activation of the hemisphere to which it is linked.

Because school is so focused on the cognitive, we too often forget to engage the physical. Our ancestors didn’t learn while sitting idly at desks; they learned while being physically engaged with the world. We’re obviously not going to transition from our desks back to the savanna, but we can still bring to bear at least some aspects of how we naturally learn.

You have two hands. Use them.

Works Cited

1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

2 Kauffman, Scott Barry, PhD. “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.” The Huffington Post. September 5, 2013.

Image Credit

Cat: distillated. “Kitten studying.” Creative Commons 2.0. Image rotated.