Imagine that on Day 1 of a difficult course, before you studied a single thing, you got hold of the final exam. The motherlode itself, full text, right there in your email inbox — attached mistakenly by the teacher, perhaps, or poached by a campus hacker. No answer key, no notes or guidelines. Just the questions.
Would that help you study more effectively? Of course it would. You would read the questions carefully. You would know exactly what to focus on in your notes. Your ears would perk up anytime the teacher mentioned something relevant to a specific question. You would search the textbook for its discussion of each question. If you were thorough, you would have memorized the answer to every item before the course ended. On the day of that final, you would be the first to finish, sauntering out with an A+ in your pocket. And you would be cheating.
New York Times, by Benedict Carey, Sept 4th, 2014.
But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.
This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.
That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.
The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar, whether geography, sociology or psychology. At least they do so in experiments in controlled laboratory conditions. A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.
The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It’s a way of enriching and altering memory.
Read the complete article: www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/magazine/why-flunking-exams-is-actually-a-good-thing.html