3 simple research-based ways to ace a test
On top of the traditional challenges of balancing their classwork, part-/full-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and social lives, today’s higher education students also face the challenge of the ever-present information firehose that is the Internet. Every day, they receive a constant stream of emails, push notifications, instant messages, social media comments, and other digital content — all of which they can carry in their pockets, and more importantly, can interrupt whatever they’re doing at a moment’s notice.
As a result, one major challenge for today’s students is to manage the ever-growing amount of information, communication, and priorities competing for their time and attention — especially when they need to study.
We’ve been hearing from many students that when they do make time to sit down and study, they find it difficult to manage that time efficiently — particularly making decisions on what to study, when to study, how often to study it, and how long to study until they become confident enough in preparation for multiple upcoming exams.
Fortunately, researchers have been investigating this problem for decades and have identified multiple methods for getting the most out of study sessions. Accordingly, here are some research-based best practices that students (or anyone else, for that matter) can use to boost their memorization skills.
Memorization takes practice
Every time you recall a piece of information (your mother’s birthday, a favorite meal at a restaurant, a key term’s definition for an exam) you retrieve it from the vast trove of knowledge that is your long-term memory. However, you’ve probably found that some pieces of information are easier to remember than others.
You’re likely to recall your home address easily because you constantly need it when filling out online forms and ensuring Amazon knows where to ship your limited edition Chewbacca mask. On the other hand, it may not be as easy to recall a friend’s phone number because it’s stored in your contacts and you rarely need to actually dial the numbers.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have found similar results to these — the more often people “practice” retrieving a certain piece of information, the easier it is for them to remember it. More importantly, scientists have demonstrated that getting yourself on a regular studying schedule can take advantage of this using what is called “spaced practice” — studying in short sessions spaced out over long periods of time. Essentially, spaced practice involves quizzing yourself and giving yourself many opportunities to practice pulling information out of your long-term memory — and doing it often over an extended period of time.
Want to give spaced practice a try? Here are some key guidelines to ensure you’re getting the most out of it.
Study early and daily
One of the most important things to remember when using spaced practice is to give yourself enough lead time before an exam. Research has shown that in general, the earlier in advance students start studying and keep studying until an exam, the higher their scores.
For example, if you have an exam in two weeks, you could begin studying for 20 minutes every day for those two weeks. That way, you’ll have many opportunities to practice retrieving the information, increasing the likelihood that you’ll remember it the day of the exam.
In contrast, if you start studying only a few days before the exam, you’ll have fewer opportunities to practice retrieving the material, and are less likely to remember it. So while there isn’t a magic recipe to determine the exact moment to start studying based on the amount of material you need to remember, it’s clear that the earlier you start studying every day, the better.
Short and sweet beats long and grueling
Another key component to spaced practice is the length of the study session. While it is common for students to embark upon marathon, multi-hour study sessions, researchers have found that when using spaced practice, long study sessions are not necessarily more effective than short study sessions. In other words, committing to studying certain material every day for 30 minutes is likely just as effective as studying that same material for an hour every day.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should all keep our study sessions as short as humanly possible and expect amazing results. Instead, it reinforces the concept of spaced practice. For instance, let’s say your goal is to memorize 15 definitions for a quiz, and you’re committed to practicing every day until that quiz. You sit down to practice each definition twice, which takes 30 minutes. (Remember, the aim of spaced practice is to retrieve a memory, and then leave a “space” of time before you retrieve it again.)
Because your brain has already retrieved each definition twice in that sitting, you may not benefit much more from studying the same words for an additional 30 minutes and reviewing each definition a total of four times. In short, once you’ve started studying early and daily, make sure to practice each concept, definition or item a few times per session — but more than that in a single sitting is likely overkill.
Don’t break the chain
I’ve emphasized the importance of practicing daily quite a bit here, and there is also a scientific reason behind that. A solid spaced practice routine means we’re continually retrieving certain information and keeping it fresh in our minds. However, if we stop practicing before something is committed to our long term memories, we’ll eventually forget it. Scientists have charted out this phenomenon in what is referred to as “The Forgetting Curve.”
In the same way that continual practice with short spaces between each session helps us to remember information, scientists have found that our ability to remember something decreases over time if we don’t practice or use the information — which is what the steep downward slope of the Forgetting Curve is meant to illustrate. When we learn new information and are immediately asked to recall it, we’re likely to remember it (the very left side of the graph).
However, from that moment on, the likelihood that we’ll remember decreases quickly and drastically unless we recall or use the memory again. If we do, then we can keep resetting or “recharging” that Forgetting Curve and keep remembering the information over time with daily practice.
For example, if you took a foreign language in high school, it’s likely that being in class five days a week, doing homework and studying for the exams kept the language’s vocabulary words fresh in your mind. However, unless you have continual opportunities to practice speaking that language after high school, it’s likely that you won’t be able to recall words, phrases, and verb conjugations over time — unless you start practicing again.
With this all in mind, if your goal is to remember something, the Forgetting Curve suggests that daily practice is key. Essentially, it’s “use it or lose it.”
Start early, finish quickly, practice daily
Although memorizing material for an exam (or multiple exams) can be intimidating, research on learning has given us a few key guidelines that have consistently demonstrated results:
- Start early. The earlier in advance you start studying daily for the exam, the better
- Finish quickly. Cover all of the material you need to remember in your daily session, but keep it short and sweet.
- Practice daily. Don’t break the daily studying chain.
While today’s students may struggle with numerous competing priorities, incorporating these habits into their routines when they do sit down to study is sure to make their sessions much more efficient.
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354–380.
Ebbinghaus, H. (1964). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (H. A. Ruger, C. E. Bussenius, & E. R. Hilgard, Trans.). New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1885)
Nathan, M. J., & Sawyer, R. K. (2014). Foundations of the Learning Sciences. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.) Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pavlik, P. I., & Anderson, J. R. (2005). Practice and forgetting effects on vocabulary memory: An activation-based model of the spacing effect. Cognitive Science, 29(4), 559-586.
Rohrer, D., Taylor, K., Pashler, H., Wixted, J. T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2005). The effect of overlearning on long-term retention. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(3), 361–374.
Stahl, S. M., Davis, R. L., Kim, D. H., Lowe, N. G., Carlson, R. E., Fountain, K., & Grady, M. M. (2010). Play it Again: The Master Psychopharmacology Program as an Example of Interval Learning in Bite-Sized Portions. CNS Spectrums, 15(8), 491–504.
About the Author
Since 2014, John Sadauskas has worked on Pearson’s Learning Design team, which supports the design and development of digital higher education products based on learning science research. He earned a PhD in Educational Technology and an MEd in Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University and a BA in Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and is also a former English instructor. His research interests include social/collaborative learning, writing, self-regulation, motivation, learning analytics, narrative storytelling, and human-computer interaction.