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Taking Harder Tests Makes You Smarter

May 09, 2012

All students have had that class where they felt lost from day one, and facing challenging new material can be very frustrating. Education Insider takes a look at research in memory and educational psychology that suggests that guesswork is good for learning - even if you're getting it wrong.

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By Megan Driscoll

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When Wrong Is Right

For most people, answering a question incorrectly - even if it's not for a grade - is an embarrassing and frustrating experience. It's only natural to assume that a wrong answer is a bad thing because it means that you're not learning. But several psychological studies in learning and memory show just the opposite: getting the answer wrong in the beginning will actually improve your recall in the long run.

In October 2009, Scientific American reported on two studies that indicate that individuals display better long term learning when they take an incorrect guess before studying new material. In the first study, researchers at UCLA performed two trials. In one, they gave students a series of questions about historical fictional events. The control group was able to study the answers before being asked to recall them, whereas the test group had to guess the answers before being given study materials.

For the second trial, the researchers assigned two groups of students the task of learning a series of loosely associated word pairs, such as 'whale-mammal.' In the control group, students were simply given 13 seconds to learn the pairs. In the test group, students were given one word and asked to guess the second one before being given the correct answer to study.

Common sense would suggest that the control groups, which never had to hazard a guess before seeing the right answer in their study materials, would perform better on a test. But in both trials, researchers found that students who made an incorrect guess before seeing the right answer showed significantly better recall when they were later tested on the material.

Other researchers later replicated these results using materials that are more likely to be found in the classroom, including an essay that students were required to read in preparation for a test on its contents. Again, they found that students who guessed before seeing the study materials did better when they were tested.

The take home message? Contrary to popular educational theory, giving students challenging material that they are bound to fail at the outset is much more likely to help them learn than creating an environment in which they never make a mistake.

This discovery could also have some pretty useful implications for how students and self-learners study. Whether you're reading for a class, preparing for an exam or just trying to pick up a new skill, give yourself some time to think about the material before you dive in. Scientific American suggests attempting to answer the questions at the end of a chapter before you start reading, or, if there aren't pre-written questions, turning the topic itself into a question.

For example, if you're studying the Civil War, ask yourself what you know about it before you crack open the book. Or if you're trying to learn a new math concept, try solving a few equations before you tackle the explanation. Even if you get every equation wrong or can't remember which general won the Battle of Gettysburg, making that effort will improve your ability to learn - and later recall - the material when you sit down to study.

More recent psychology research has found a link between acting and reading comprehension.

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