Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Psychologists' tips for passing exams

Edited by Jill Wright,

The New York Times is doing its best to help students get better results, with another article on the research of clinical psychologists which shows how most of the conventional strategies for remembering stuff you've learned don't help at all when it comes to exams.

If you want to get better exam results, says the article's author, Henry L. Roediger III, don't bother constantly re-reading material, underlining or highlighting text or engaging in massed practice - intense study the night before an exam for example.

You'll do far better, says Roediger, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, if you use "retrieval practice" - locking in learning by regular tests. It's particularly effective if your studies are "interleaved" with the practice of other knowledge or skills. 

You could call this, perhaps, the psychology of passing exams.

Roediger and his colleagues applied the strategy in a field study in a Columbia, Illinois middle school class, and found that students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once, and subsequently quizzed three times. They averaged only a C+ when material had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. And students retained the information in a foll-up test eight months later.

It isn't the first time I've written about Roediger's work. I looked at a couple of his experiments on the benefits of testing a year ago.

Since then, he and colleagues Peter C. Brown and Mark A. McDaniel have published a book on their work called Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It applies not just to students, but also to people like surgeons, pilots, and gardeners.

Times Higher Education gave it an enthusiastic review, describing it as a "lively and engaging book on the science of learning", and called it "a must".

At $15.83 on Amazon's Australian site, it sounds like a worthwhile investment in education.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.