What is the Testing Effect?

The testing effect is the finding that your memory is increased if you try to retrieve a piece of information without any outside help.

For example, if you are learning about the bones of the hand, you are better off trying to recall them from memory rather than reading them again from the textbook.

By doing so, the testing effect will make it so your memory of the bones of the hand gets strengthened.

The testing effect tells us that if we want to learn more efficiently, we are better off testing ourselves rather than reading the textbook.

João explains the testing effect

If you’re learning something, it’s likely that you have a book or some sort of reading material from which you’re learning from.

When you’re starting off, reading the book is fine and good. That’s how you start learning. But after that first pass, is reading the book the best you can do?

The testing effect tells us that it is not.

The testing effect is another name for what can be called retrieval practice. The idea is that your memories will become stronger if you force yourself to pluck them out from your brain. When you retrieve a memory, you are in essence telling your brain that the memory is important and that it should hold on to it because you might need it later.

Reading does not tell your brain anything. It doesn’t force you to retrieve memories. It is a passive process where your eyes pass over text other people have written and where you are merely the receptacle for what other people think.

Retrieving a memory forces you to be an active participant in the learning process, and that makes all the difference. It allows you to process deeply the material you’re learning because you are in a conversation with it, rather than sitting quietly while others talk.

Testing is more effective than reading

Because of the testing effect, retrieving a memory has consequences. It is not an innocuous process. It is not enough to get a memory into your mind, you have to work it, like a muscle.

Retrieving a memory works very much like pulling weights. By putting in the effort you make it stronger.

Moreover, retrieving a memory is a cheap way to discover how much you know, and by extension, how much you don’t.

When you close your textbook and try to recall something, you are instantly made aware you don’t know the material. If you’re trying to recall the many bones of the hand and you can’t name them all, you know what you need to spend a bit more time learning about.

But beware. The benefits of the testing effect are bigger than merely making obvious what you don’t know.

Even if you had been capable of naming all the bones of the hand, you still gained much from the act of retrieving them from your memory. The testing effect made that memory stronger.

The testing effect, alongside the spacing effect, are two of the most important psychological findings about memory and learning you can make use of. Together, they are responsible for the incredible learning improvements brought about by spaced repetition software, like Anki.

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