The Science of Learning: Why Failing More Tests Is a Good Idea

According to researchers at the intersection of psychology and education, i.e. measuring the way we learn, tests may be most beneficial before students have learned any of the material on them. 

While educators have fiercely debated the rise in standardized testing and policies like No Child Left Behind, the science of learning suggests that exams are more than tools to measure achievement. Tests have an essential role in the learning process: the trick, it seems, is testing students at the right time. And according to researchers at the intersection of psychology and education--professionals measuring the way we learn--tests may be most beneficial before students have learned any of the material on them. 


Giving students a history exam, for example, before they have had any lessons on the subject primes the pump of learning, introducing names, dates, and concepts that students will then pay special attention to when they come up later in the semester. Of course students will fail these early exams miserably, but high test scores are not the point.

"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."

Experts say retrieving a memory is not like opening a file on your laptop, despite the frequent simile that the brain works like a computer. Instead, to retrieve a memory is to alter it. Thus when students are presented with information several times but in different contexts (say first on an exam they are certain to fail, then later in a lecture on similar material), a more complete narrative of information is constructed, resulting in more complete learning. 

As Harvard professor of education Daniel Koretz said in his Big Think interview, some forms of knowledge are not well suited to being measured by a test. But according to recent research, testing can aid the learning process, not just measure its results:

Read more at the New York Times

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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