The word ‘test’ alone is probably enough to strike fear into the heart of even the most nerveless of students. Yet research shows that tests can help improve our long-term memory and our ability to retrieve important information when we need it.

We all have our own study strategies, with specific habits, quirks and routines that we feel work best for us. But there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that the traditional approach to learning may not be as effective as we once believed. In fact, if you find yourself reading until your eyes are almost ready to pop out of their sockets as you approach exam time, then it’s likely you’re doing things wrong.

The Testing Effect

Tests are widely considered to be ends rather than means. We use them to show us how much we know (and in some cases, how much we don’t!), but more and more psychologists are advancing the notion that tests can be far more useful to us than this. ‘How?’ you ask. Well it seems they can actually help improve long-term memory. This makes them ideal for language learning or storing key facts and dates. Which makes it all the more of a shame that they’re either under-utilized, or not utilized in a more effective way.

Learning how to learn

So if testing is so effective in improving our long-term ability to recall facts, why don’t we use it more often and implement it into our revision plans? Some commentators have suggested that it may come down to the way that we traditionally feel about tests. It’s probably fair to say that most people would view standard study methods as being less intimidating and demanding than tests. As the brain is hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance, learners are more inclined to opt for the easier option.

However, it has also been noted that people exhibit a lack of awareness when it comes to the ways we think and how they can be improved upon. These are what psychologist Tom Stafford refers to as ‘mental blind spots’.

So while it may seem counter-intuitive to think that testing yourself when not properly prepared might be a good thing, it can still be hugely rewarding when used as part of a broader study strategy.