Strategies for academic success: practice testing

I had lunch with a friend on Sunday and she told me of her concerns about her daughter, who just finished her freshman year of high school with some sub-par grades.  Her daughter attends one of the most academically rigorous high schools in New York City and the frequency and intensity of the exams her teachers give caught her off guard.  Like many other students, my friend’s daughter is relying mainly on reviewing the material and creating long study guides with her friends to prepare for these exams.  Turns out that’s not such an effective way to study.

Try practice testing, I suggested.  Here’s how it could go:

  1. Your daughter and a friend pair up as study partners.
  2. Daughter writes a practice test for friend; friend writes a practice test for daughter (review #1 of material).
  3. Each takes the practice test that the other wrote for her (review #2 of material).
  4. Daughter grades test that friend took; friend grades test that daughter took (review #3 of material).
  5. The two study partners talk through any of the practice test questions that they found challenging (review #4 of material).

Dividing the review up into multiple steps that span several days also brings into play another high-utility cognitive learning technique called “distributed practice.”  Distributed practice is like the antithesis of cramming.  You engage with the material in several iterations.  The repeated exposure helps to commit the material to long-term memory.