Testing times

Self-testing can help you gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

Updated - May 21, 2016 09:01 am IST

Published - March 30, 2014 02:34 pm IST

Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi

Most of us associate the word ‘testing’ with examinations that are imposed on us by schools and colleges. We believe that they are a rite of passage that we need to undergo in order to satisfy graduation requirements of educational institutions. Further, tests are paired with marks and ranks to gauge our performance relative to others. But testing need not necessarily be limited to externally mandated requirements or competitive purposes. In fact, self-testing, wherein we test our own abilities or knowledge, can be a powerful tool for learning that promotes understanding at a deeper and more sophisticated level.

Creating a test

In fact, creating a test itself can enhance your grasp of a particular subject. As a student, you typically prepare yourself to answer questions, but often posing questions can aid comprehension as you might see connections you didn’t notice before or come up with fresh insights or inferences. Further, generating a variety of types of questions in varying formats can help you see the material from new angles. Thus, your questions may require direct, inferential, analytical and open-ended responses. By framing exercises involving short-answers, extended essays, multiple-choice options, match the following or fill-in-the-blank activities, you will find that you can penetrate a text at multiple levels.

After creating your ‘test’, you may want to take a break before you actually take it. If time permits, you can do the test under exam-like conditions where you seclude and time yourself. But if you are pressed for time, you must at least try to answer the questions orally. When in doubt, refer to the text. If you still cannot answer a question, then you should probably consult your peers or professors.

Of course, it might be worthwhile to challenge yourself with one or two questions that you cannot answer readily. Even if you are not able to answer the questions, the very act of asking it will probably change the way you view the concept you are studying. Some questions may even pique your curiosity to seek further. In addition to asking your teachers for advice, you may be motivated to read beyond the confines of your text.

Improves delayed recall

Further, psychologists have documented an intriguing phenomenon called the “testing effect.” Professors Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke have found that the act of testing improves subjects’ delayed recall of material. Interestingly, testing was found to be superior at aiding students’ long-term retention compared to simply restudying content. In a paper published in Psychological Science , Roediger and Karpicke write, “Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.” In another study, published in Science , Karpicke and Janell Blunt found that students who took a test were better at long-term recall than a group that engaged in concept mapping. Thus, once you have mastered a few chapters, it might be more prudent to test yourself instead of merely restudying the material. For reasons that are not entirely clear to psychologists, the act of retrieving information helps it stick better in your memory.

After you take your test, you will also have a better grip on how effectively you have studied. Were you able to answer most questions smoothly? If you were stymied by most of them, then you need to review the lesson again or probably even alter the way you study. Perhaps, you read the lesson in a cursory fashion without processing the content at a deeper level. Self-testing can be an effective measure of your study habits and can sharpen your meta-cognitive awareness, which is a personal reflection of how your inner faculties operate. You will realise whether you have been an attentive reader or if your mind has been drifting during some sections. You may find that it is not enough for you to revise the content a couple of times; memorising dates in history may take longer and require more effort on your part. As you begin to fathom under what conditions you learn and remember best, and what you need to do in order to understand a concept deeply, you will be able to optimise your study habits.

While testing can be a solitary activity, you may also find it useful to exchange test questions with your peers. In fact, a whole class of test-makers will be a formidable challenge for any professor to beat. When you have 40 minds devising tricky or complex questions, you are bound to have a valuable question bank at your disposal.

Students sometimes attempt question papers from previous years when studying. While old question papers can definitely be used to test yourself, don’t deny yourself the opportunity of being a test-creator. Finally, you must remember that the goal of education is not to crack tests but to learn and extend yourself.

The author is director, Prayatna. Email: arunasankara@gmail.com

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