Sure, success sometimes is sometimes the result of whom you know. Still: Long-term success is almost always based on what you know.
That’s why most successful people try to be lifelong learners. And (at least try) to a research-based approach to learning faster and retaining more.
One way is harness the power of interleaving by learning several subjects or skills in succession. Other methods include tapping the power of memory consolidation and reconsolidation. Or exercising before trying to learn something new. Or, even by sleeping your way to better long-term memory and recall.
Here’s another way to learn faster, retain more information, and improve your memory: Test yourself.
I know what you’re thinking. You don’t like tests. Especially when tests are intended to assess: Grades, rankings, hire/don’t hire decisions… taking a test is usually high pressure, high stakes.
But what if a test is low-stakes? What if a test is used to help you, not assess you? Turns out self-testing — which automatically makes it low-stakes testing — is an extremely effective way to speed up the learning process.
Partly that’s due to the additional context you naturally create. Quiz yourself and answer incorrectly and not only will you be more likely to remember the right answer after you look it up, you’ll also remember the fact you didn’t remember. Getting something wrong is a great way to remember it the next time, especially if you tend to be hard on yourself.
In a weird way, what you got wrong can be “stickier” in terms of memory than what you got right.
The key is to ensure the stakes are low. Say you’re teaching new sales reps how to conduct a product demo. Stop halfway and administer a pop quiz, and the stakes — since it feels like an assessment, not a learning tool — might not seem so low to the participants. Plus, no one likes to be wrong in front of other people.
But you could pass out a quick quiz, let people take it, go over the answers, and then let them throw away their papers when you’re done. Then it’s a low stakes test that fosters learning.
And provides a number of other positive outcomes. A study published in Psychology of Learning and Motivation uncovered ten different benefits of low-stakes testing, whether self-directed or external. (Again, the key is low stakes.)
1. Testing — and retrieving — aids retention. Don’t just read, re-read, highlight, rehearse…. also quiz yourself.
If you’re learning a presentation, quiz yourself on what comes after your intro. Quiz yourself by listing the four main points you want to make. Quiz yourself on sales estimates, or key initiatives, or results from competitive analysis.
That will force you to practice retrieving the information you want to remember, which will make it stickier.
2. Testing identifies knowledge gaps. Test yourself and you’ll quickly discover what you don’t know. Then you can focus on learning that. (And you’ll be more likely to remember that information since you didn’t know it the first time.)
3. Testing helps you learn more the next time you study. Studies show that people who took a test before they studied retained information better than those who did not. (Think of it as priming your study pump.)
4. Testing organizes knowledge. Reading is fairly passive. Testing forces you to make connections, or recognizes gaps in your ability to make connections. Testing helps you realize, “Ah — this goes with that,” or, “This causes that,” or to in some way cluster information so that it makes better sense.
5. Testing helps transfer knowledge to new situations. People who are repeatedly tested are better able to apply what they know to new situations. Think of it as the, “Hmm… this is a lot like that, but with one little twist” effect.
6. Testing helps retrieve information not tested. Granted, this one seems odd. Still: Take a test, and you’ll better remember information that was studied but not tested. (I’m guessing that’s the result of the overall memory boost frequent low stakes testing provides.)
7. Testing improves metacognitive monitoring. Ever read something and at the end realized you don’t remember any of it? Frequent self-testing helps you get better at noticing times when you aren’t learning. Or don’t really understand. Because you’re in the habit of quizzing yourself, you’ll more quickly realize that you’re likely to get whatever you’re trying to learn wrong.
And you’ll adjust accordingly.
8. Testing prevents interference from prior material. Try to learn a lot at once and it all tends to run together. Or, more likely, you’ll remember what you learned early in the session… but after awhile the rest is just a blur.
Toss in a few quizzes along the way, though, and that doesn’t tend to happen. If you need to learn a lot of material, break the session into chunks by inserting a few quizzes. And if you’re teaching new employees a lot of material, definitely toss in a bunch of low-stakes quizzes.
Otherwise much of the time and money you spend on training will be wasted.
9. Testing provides feedback to instructors. Research shows the average instructor or trainer greatly overestimates how much people have learned. (You know what you’re teaching, so it seems easy to you.) Frequent testing helps you as the trainer know where people stand.
Again, just make sure it’s low stakes. And if people struggle, don’t imply they don’t “get it.” Be self-deprecating. Say you need to do a better job explaining, teaching, or training.
Because clearly you do.
10. Testing encourages more learning. Test me once a month and I’ll probably only study the day before the test. Test me every day and I’ll study every day.
The same is true for self-testing. Test yourself often and you’ll not only be motivated to learn what you don’t know, you’ll feel good about how much you have learned.
The result is a virtuous — not vicious — cycle of motivation. Testing indicates improvement. Improvement feels good: It always, always, always feels good to improve. Feeling good about yourself provides a small dose of motivation to keep putting in the effort.
Which results in more improvement, more self-satisfaction, and motivation… and more learning.
That’s the real beauty of frequent, low-stakes testing. Not only will you learn more.
You’ll want to learn more.
Can’t beat that.
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