Taking Tests Improves Long-Term Retention

Most people know that taking tests improves the test-taker’s performance on the next test. Taking tests is not merely a way to improve cognitive development in young children; it can also help improve the long-term retention of information learned in later life.

When we take tests, we want to maximize our chances of getting a good grade. We often see tests as a means to measure our ability, and we work hard to do well on them. In the process, however, we can be hurt by this knowledge and end up pushing ourselves too hard. The result? Failures in the classroom and on the job.

A good test score can make the difference between a student getting into a good college and a good college accepting them. And a good score can make the difference between a student graduating from high school and a student graduating from high school. As such, it’s not surprising that students go to great lengths to improve their scores. Parents often push their kids to spend time studying for tests, and students often spend time studying for tests.  

Most students can agree that taking tests is stressful. But many reports that the stress isn’t always just about the test itself, but rather the preparation for the test (and especially what to do after you take the test). There are also students who think that tests are just a waste of their time, which is not ideal for the next generation that will populate the earth. Our research suggests that taking tests is actually rather helpful for long-term retention. In other words, taking tests improves long-term retention and helps students learn to study well.

Some information about tests improving long-term retention:

  • According to a recent study by the University of Maryland, students who take tests in class are more likely to remember what they learned and retain it over time than those who don’t. This is because teachers who emphasize testing, while not in line with traditional pedagogy, save students from making costly mistakes that would prevent them from passing, for example, by not reviewing the material well enough.
  • Another study found that one to two hours of testing each day for four months significantly improved a test taker’s long-term retention of new material. The researchers from the University of Colorado found that the test takers who participated in the study retained their new material, on average, for 23 days while those who did not have a retention rate of 6 days. Colleges and universities across the US make taking tests a central part of their student experience. Most students are required to take a series of tests to help them decide on their major, as well as to help them have a better understanding of their skills and knowledge of subject subjects.
  • In 2012, researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of Minnesota conducted a study that examined the effect of testing on student retention. They found that students who took tests in a course were more likely to be retained than students who did not. This is not a surprising result, and the findings are backed by previous research. But, what is interesting about this study is that it was conducted for a grade and not for a final exam. The study found that students retained at least 70% of a grade with final exams, but they retained only about 60% of the grade with tests.
  • A recent study from the University of Michigan shows that taking tests doesn’t actually help you retain what you learn and may even exacerbate the damage caused by forgetting. In their study, researchers asked participants to review a list of words three times: once after a short lecture and once after listening to a lecture on memory. Afterward, the participants took a test on the words they learned in the first lecture, and most of them remembered the list of words. Students who work harder on their schoolwork, particularly on tests, are more likely to learn and retain information. However, a new study suggests that working harder on tests does not necessarily lead to better long-term retention—something that some educators, parents, and students have believed for decades.