This self-guided tutorial is for students and teachers who want to learn more about how to use self-testing as a learning strategy. It includes:

  1. An overview of how self-testing affects learning, understanding and memory
  2. Video examples of self-testing strategies
  3. How to improve at self-testing

Self-Testing Explained

Self-testing is the process of trying to recall what you have learned or studied without looking back at the material. Self-testing is similar to practice testing and practice quizzes. All of these activities involve “retrieval practice,” trying to recall or retrieve information from memory. Abundant research has found that self-testing is a potent learning strategy (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). To illustrate, in one study researchers divided students into four groups. Each group used a different method to study an article from Scientific American. The four methods were:

  1. Study: Students read/studied the material one time.
  2. Repeated study: Students read/studied the material four consecutive times.
  3. Concept mapping: Students read/studied the material one time and made a concept map of it.
  4. Retrieval practice: Students read/studied the material and then wrote down everything they could remember without looking back at the information. They repeated this study-recall procedure one more time. Note that this is self-testing.

One week after studying the article students took a test on the material. As shown in the figure below, the Retrieval Practice group outperformed the other groups on questions of verbatim factual information as well as questions that involved drawing inferences and conclusions (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011).

Source: Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772–775.

Surprised that trying to recall the material leads to better learning than rereading and restudying the material multiple times? You are not alone. In fact, students who participated in this study predicted that retrieval practice would be the least effective among the four study methods. We can explain the differences in student learning by examining the mental processes involved in retrieval and rereading.

Retrieval practice is effective for two reasons:

  1. Whenever you try to recall information you have been learning you make new connections and associations that will help you recall it in the future. Bringing information to mind strengthens the memory and increases the chances you can recall it at a later time. Retrieval practice

 . . . produces direct effects on learning, because engaging in the process of retrieval itself produces learning. Every time we retrieve knowledge, that knowledge is altered, and the ability to reconstruct that knowledge again in the future is enhanced. Karpicke & Grimaldi, 2012

In retrieving information from memory, you form new associations and connections to the material which expands your understanding of the material, and also provide new retrieval cues that help you recall the material. With additional retrieval attempts, it becomes easier to recall the information.

2. Retrieval practice is also effective because it provides feedback about what you know and don’t know. When we can’t recall information, it is a clear signal that we don’t know it (or don’t know it very well). We can use that feedback to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. After a disappointing test grade, students often tell their instructor, “I thought I knew this.” However, the most accurate way to judge whether you know something is to test yourself on it. If you can’t produce the answer, you don’t know it. Retrieval practice enables you to better judge what you know and don’t know. Then you can go back and fill in the missing pieces.

Compared to retrieval practice, rereading is a weak learning strategy. Rereading material one time does improve learning. But additional rereading produces little improvement (Callender & McDaniel, 2009). Why is this the case? Shouldn’t students learn at least a little more with each rereading? The answer to the question lies in examining how students think when they read.

Reading can be a very productive learning experience when an individual ponders a text, works out new meanings, connects new information to prior knowledge, monitors comprehension, backtracks to gain better understanding, and so forth. But this kind of close, probing reading is probably not the typical way students study. Instead, as students reread the material it becomes more and more familiar. Familiarity with the material can produce an “illusion of knowing,” a belief that you know it (Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013). In other words, when you read about a topic the material is in front of you and fresh in your mind. But that sense of being familiar with the material at the time of reading is not equivalent to having learned it. You may be able to answer questions about the topic today, but not when you take a test.

Although self-testing is an effective learning strategy, students tend to dislike it because it seems:

  1. harder than rereading and highlighting the material. Testing yourself requires extra mental effort and even a bit of struggle to recall what you learned. This is more difficult than simply rereading the information.
  2. less effective. If you read something one time and write down what you remember, you may be disappointed in how little you recall. That experience leads students to conclude that self-testing is ineffective, and they stop using it. However, the research is quite convincing, repeated self-testing over the material is much more effective than rereading it.

Examples of Self-Testing Strategies

This section identifies self-testing strategies and describes briefly how to use them effectively. You may already self-test when you study. If so, this section may introduce you to new strategies, and also give you some tips on how to optimize your learning from self-testing.

While reading an assignment. Read a segment of assigned material, a paragraph or an entire page. Then stop, put the material aside and try to write down everything you remember from what you just read. This will seem difficult and you probably won’t remember everything or even understand everything. But that’s OK; the point is to try to remember it. You will be strengthening your memory for everything you are able to recall, and that information will be easier to remember again later. Go through the entire assignment, reading and then trying to remember the information from each part. Research has shown that this type of practice testing is superior to simply rereading the material, and even better than reading and taking notes on the material.

This short video describes and explains how to self-test while reading.

Before and after rereading an assignment. As discussed earlier, rereading is not a very effective learning strategy. However, you can make it more effective by combining it with self-testing. If you decide to reread an assignment, do it 1-2 days after the first reading. Then try this procedure:

  • Before you reread, take a few minutes to test yourself by trying to remember the information from the assignment. Jot down everything you remember.
  • Reread the assignment, pausing periodically to test yourself on sections of the assignment.
  • When you are done reading, use your answers to identify gaps in your knowledge and understanding of the material. You can then go back and review the chapter and work on material you don’t yet know.

At the end of class. As soon as you can after class, take a few minutes to write down the major points from the class period, and then try to recall as much as you can under each major point. This is an excellent way to consolidate what you were trying to learn in class. Then later when you review your class notes, handouts, etc., you can refer back to your answers to see where you need to review and add to your understanding.

Answer practice questions. If you use a textbook that has questions at the end of each chapter, get in the habit of trying to answer them. Read the chapter and then answer the questions as best you can. Don’t look back at the answers in the book. You may not be able to answer all of them well, but that’s OK. Trying to answer the questions will improve your memory for the material. You can then go back and review the chapter to work on the gaps in your answers.

This short video describes and explains how to self-test effectively with practice questions.

Answer Study Guide Questions. A study guide from the instructor is a gift; use it! If the study guide includes practice test questions – use them!! An effective approach is to:

  • Review the study guide questions for the assigned reading first.
  • Read the assignment.
  • Answer the questions without looking back at the material. Don’t answer the questions as you encounter them in the text. Don’t look up the answers or look back at the book! Try to answer the questions as best you can first.
  • Check and revise your answers. Go back and compare your answers to the material and extend and refine your answers.
  • The next time you read the assignment, review your answers and then study the material strategically – focusing on gaps in your understanding and weak spots in your answers.

Make your own practice questions/quizzes. Initially, read and test yourself over new material (this type of test is called “free recall”). Then while the material is still fresh, go back and write a few questions to use as practice quiz questions. Testing yourself with specific questions is known as “cued recall,” because the question itself reminds you of the topics to be remembered. Use your practice questions to self-test each time you study. Cued recall questions make self-testing a bit easier than trying to remember and write down everything you remember as in free recall.

This short video explains how to make and use your own practice questions.

Concept Cards. Most classes involve learning many new concepts. You can use “Concept Cards” to learn this type of material. For a discussion of how to use “Concept Cards” for self-testing, view this short video.

Research shows that many college students use flashcards to learn specific ideas, concepts, formulas, and terminology. Flashcards can be a potent form of self-testing, students often misuse flashcards in several ways that undermines their effectiveness. If you use or plan to use flashcards, check out Research-based Guidelines for Using Flashcards to Improve Learning.

How to Improve at Self-Testing

Dozens of research studies have documented significant gains in student learning by using retrieval practice. Self-testing can help you achieve more robust and durable knowledge and skills — but only if you use it appropriately. This section examines how to use self-testing most effectively. To appreciate some subtle, but important differences in self-testing techniques read the three brief scenarios below. For each scenario, decide whether one of the approaches would result in better learning than the other, and explain your choice.

Scenario 1: An instructor tells students that the next exam will involve analyzing and applying course concepts to important real-life problems and identifies several types of problems that might be on the test. Students decide to use flashcards for self-testing.

  • Student A makes a set of flashcards that involve learning the definitions of the major concepts in the unit. Each card has the concept name on one side and the definition on the other.
  • Student B makes a set of flashcards that involve application of the course content to the types of problems the instructors identified. Each flashcard describes a problem on one side and on the other side are ideas about how to address the problem based on the course content.

Q: Which set of flashcards is likely to be better for studying? Explain your choice.

Scenario 2: Students make a set of practice questions of the major concepts and topics to be covered on the next exam. For each question they also make a correct “model answer.” They schedule three study sessions to self-test with the practice questions.

  • At all three practice sessions, Student A answers all of the practice questions. After answering the questions, she compares her answers to the model answers.
  • At the first session, Student B answers all the practice questions, and compares his answers to the model answers. He removes the questions he answered correctly and puts them aside. At the second practice quiz session, answers only the questions he did not answer correctly in the first session. At the third practice session he works only on questions he did not answer correctly in previous sessions.

Q: Which flashcard approach is likely to be more effective? Explain your answer.

Scenario 3: Students prepare a set of practice quizzes that include the major concepts for the test and schedule a few study sessions to take the practice quizzes.

  • In working on the practice quizzes, Student A encounters some questions she thinks she does not know and skips over them. She reviews the answers to the skipped questions at the end of the quiz.
  • In working on the practice quizzes, Student B tries to answer all of the questions as best he can even when he thinks he doesn’t know the answer.

Q: Which practice quiz approach is likely to be more effective? Explain your answer.

Compare your answers to the research-based predictions.

Optimize Self-Testing

  • Make questions similar to exam questions
  • Keep practicing
  • Don’t skip easy questions
  • Try to answer difficult questions

Keys to optimizing your learning from self-testing:

  1. Use practice questions that target the content and types of questions that will be on the exam. Use practice questions that target high priority concepts and content.
    • Try to make sure you have practice questions that encompass the important material for the test. Use guidance from your instructor to determine what concepts are important and also your own judgment based on the material that has been emphasized most.
    • Use practice questions that target the kind of thinking needed for the test. If the test requires you to be able to recognize or create examples of concepts, then include some practice questions that involve thinking of examples. If you need to analyze concepts on the test, use practice questions that involve analysis of concepts. Research has shown that students tend to make practice questions that involve definitions of concepts. These are OK if all you need to do on the test is define concepts. But these will not help much if he questions involve more complex thinking. For examples of how to write practice questions see pp. 2-5 of Research-Based Guidelines for Using Flashcards to Improve Your Learning.
  2. Continue to practice after you answer questions correctly. Answer questions correctly multiple times at several study sessions. Some researchers advocate answering a question correctly 9 times, 3 times at 3 different study sessions. Think of it this way — for most skills we keep practicing even if we do something correctly once or a few times. We keep practicing until we can do it correctly every time, on demand.
  3. Answer practice questions even when you think you know the answer. Sometimes when students think they know an answer they skip over the question without really trying to answer it. But, recall improves your learning and memory every time — even when you already know the answer. Don’t skip over it.
  4. Answer practice questions even when you think you don’t know the answer. Again, trying to recall information from memory strengthens your memory as you make more associations and connections with the material. Research has shown that the best time to practice retrieval is after you have started to forget the material. This means the concepts may be harder to remember but the effort will have a positive effect on long-term learning.