“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.” So read a headline in The New York Times. I’m a sucker for scientific studies on how to learn, even if I’m skeptical about testing, so I clicked on the story.
The study, by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, found that people remembered material they studied the best when they read it, closed the book, wrote a free-form essay about what they had learned, and then repeated the process.
The authors, who are psychologists, call this “retrieval testing.” I call it writing.
It makes sense to me. There’s nothing like trying to describe something to someone else to show you what you know and what you don’t. If you can’t write it down clearly, you don’t understand it, whether we’re talking about black holes or the alternative reality that currently lives inside your head.
Writers who do a lot of research will benefit from this information. Say you’re doing a steampunk story (Note: The Shadow Conspiracy II is now available!) and you want to use Sir Humphrey Davy’s creation of the mine safety lamp as a basis for your story. You read up on Davy’s work (there’s a good account in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder), close the book, write down what you remember, and then repeat the process. If Karpicke and Blunt are right, you will probably remember enough about Davy’s work to incorporate it into your story.
It does seem to me that this research presents a good argument for moving away from multiple choice tests and going back to the good old essay test. Of course, I loved essay tests when I was in school, because even if you didn’t know much about a subject, if you wrote down everything you could think of, you might get partial credit. (Okay, that’s probably not a good argument for learning by writing, though I suspect it helps one develop writing skills.)
But formal testing isn’t the only way to use this. Students might benefit if, at the end of a class discussion, the teacher had them spend five minutes writing down what they had learned. In fact, maybe that’s what I ought to start doing when I go to hear lectures.
I’d like to see researchers devise another writing-based experiment to see how it affects learning. How about having students read a book and write a book report that explains the key concepts in it, using the book as they write? This would require more than free form memory; students would need to explain the ideas clearly. Obviously, it would have to go farther than the “This was a really good book” book reports that usually indicate the student didn’t actually read the book.
I wonder if a test on that material a month later would show that they students mastered the material. I bet it would.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.