Testing before and after learning works

Just not for the reasons I thought. Listening to an interview with Barbara Oakley I recently discovered why tests help us learn.

Oakley was recently on the excellent Knowledge Project podcast, and is famous as the woman behind the largest MOOC – Massive Online Open Course in the world –  with over 2 million people enrolled, called Learning how to learn.

I had mistakenly thought that tests were beneficial for learning because they benchmarked our knowledge levels.  And  provided us with a sense of urgency – a deadline to focus the mind.  We see what we actually know, and we get motivated and put in the effort ahead of the test, anxious to beat our classmates or at least not to shown up.

Actually, tests are where the learning takes place.  The act of recalling information is when we start to embed whatever we are studying.  Trying to remember something without any help fires up our neurons to focus on that very thing.  Even if we can’t remember anything from the last time, we’re all primed and ready to learn – our attention is switch on.

So when we’re trying to learn something – a language, the guitar, how to use your wordpress website – we can test ourselves before we start to study.  This will help us learn more as soon as we start.

I’ve known about the idea of test-learn-test before in learning, and thought it was useful so people could see what they learnt, and get a sense of achievement.  In reality, testing helps us with the act of learning.

It makes me see testing in a different light both for corporate learning, and also when checking understanding of my own learning.

So try it.  Next time you’re trying to learn something before you return to your notes, test yourself.  See what you can remember and this will help you learn more.  Barbara also has thoughts on memorising things and why that’s important.  But that’s another post.