Although students bemoan having to take tests, researchers have confirmed that memory practice helps an individual remember things in a variety of ways.
“We’ve known for over 100 years that testing is good for memory,” says Kent State University psychology graduate student Kalif Vaughn.
Classically, psychologists have proven that “retrieval practice” — correctly producing a studied item — increases the likelihood that you’ll get it right the next time.
“But we didn’t know why,” Vaughn said.
Researchers have believed testing is good for remembering the exact thing you are trying to remember: so-called “target memory.” However, researchers did not know if the memory practice would help an individual remember other items.
In other words, if you’re asked to recall the Lithuanian equivalent of an English word, memory practice will help you remember the Lithuanian word, but you won’t necessarily remember the English.
In the new research study, Vaughn and Kent State psychologist Dr. Katherine A. Rawson investigated if memory practice (as occurs when you study for a test) might boost other types of memory.
Turns out it does.
They discovered that retrieval practice helps all forms of memory. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
That “everything” includes target memory; “cue memory,” for the stimulus (the Lithuanian) that reveals the target; and “associative memory,” of the relationship between things—in this case, the word pair.
To pinpoint which of these components was improving, the researchers conducted two slightly different experiments, one involving 131 undergraduates and the other, 69.
In both preparation sessions, English-Lithuanian word pairs were displayed on a computer screen one by one, each for 10 seconds of study. After studying the list, the participants underwent retrieval trials: A Lithuanian word appeared and they had to type the English equivalent within eight seconds.
If the answer was correct, the word went to the end of the list to be asked again. If wrong, the participant got to restudy it. Each item was pre-assigned a “criterion level” from one to five—the number of times it needed to be correctly recalled during practice. Once that level was reached, the word was dropped from practice.
Participants then returned—two days later in experiment 1, seven in experiment 2—and completed tests recruiting different types of memory. First, they performed one of four recall tests, plus trials including recognizing words they had or had not studied and picking out correct word pairings among incorrect ones.
To eliminate the potentially enhancing effect of a prior recall test—and get a “pure” assessment of recognition of cues, targets, and associations—the second experiment eliminated the preceding recall tests.
The experiments yielded the same results: Items with higher “criterion levels”—which had been correctly retrieved more times during practice—exhibited better performance on tests of all three kinds of memory: cue, target, and associative.
The researchers discovered that merely taking multiple tests was not benefical, however successful testing—getting the answer right—made the difference in memory performance later on.
Vaughn admits the study leaves much to be discovered. “We know that repeated retrieval is good for memory. Testing is a modifier of memory. But we still don’t know how that works. We don’t understand the mechanism.”