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Testing: the bane of every student’s existence March 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, teaching.
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I just read a press release explaining why people have such a discrepancy between what they think they know and how they can still have difficulty with recalling that information.  It was very interesting to read this because it explained something that has always been frustrating for me: how can I go into a test, thinking I know something, and then miss it?

The press release discussed a couple of experiments that show the following:

1) People associate ease of understanding with ease of recall.  In other words, they think that because something is easy to understand, they will be able to recall it later.

2) What really helps cement things into memory is repetition and struggling with difficult problems.

When I started high school, I had actually planned on going into linguistics, so I took a couple foreign languages.  I found that I didn’t have too many problems with these, but I know I spent a lot of time practicing and having friends quiz me on words.  I also spent a lot of my study time just reading literature or watching videos in those languages, which helped me reinforce what I knew.  There was more of a learning curve when, half-way through, I decided I wanted to do science, but it wasn’t bad.  I even recall finding a more intuitive method for a type of problem in my AP chem class, which my teacher had me explain to everyone, so you know I had to ace that test.

College wasn’t too bad, either.  While testing was pretty regular early on, a lot of the material in my lower-level classes was actually review from stuff I had in high school, so it wasn’t too hard.  When I got to my upper-level physics and math courses, the majority used take-home tests.  My profs were of the opinion that in-class exams weren’t a good assessment of what we’d learned.  Usually exams consisted of problems that were like very difficult homework problems.  Given I’m generally good at figuring things out when not under pressure, this worked well for me.  (And generally, these are the types of skills that, in my experience, have a good bearing on your research abilities.)

Then I went into engineering and started having problems.  No take-home exams.  I was particularly upset after one exam, so I talked to my advisor.  My advisor said that he’d run into the same thing when he started in electrical engineering.  You see, his undergraduate degree was in math education, so he took lots of education and math.  I can’t say much about education, but the focus in math was very similar to what it was in physics.  He told me that the best way to study was to sit down with a problem and redo it.  Then redo it again…and when I could redo it without thinking, I would be set.  He was right.  I spent a lot more time working and reworking example textbook problems and homework problems, and tests became a lot less scary.

After reading this article, I guess it makes a lot more sense now.  I used to think that once I’d solved a problem, I should remember it.  I guess I was pretty lucky because, for the most part, I could remember after one or two repetitions, which only reinforced that view.  Of course, I later became unlucky because I didn’t really know how to study when I got to my MS.  Even if I could recall the process, it was often too slow to demonstrate on a test.  Fortunately, I had a good advisor who was able to help me through it.  Given I’ve seen this with my own students, I plan to pass on this information.

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