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August 2005

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Dennis Congos

SELF-TESTING CONCEPT: Discovering what has been learned before an exam is taken, not after.

By Dennis Congos, University of Central Florida

One of the most dangerous things college students can do academically is to go into a test thinking, feeling, assuming, or believing they have learned the material. This is dangerous academically because in all 4 of these cases students don't find out if they have learned the material or not until after a test is returned when little to nothing can be done about the test grade then. This is like waiting to discover if you can swim only after someone throws you into the deep end of the lake miles from shore. It would be better to discover swimming efficacy before one meets the water in the deep end. With learning, it is better for students to discover what they have learned and have not yet learned before they take a test when they still may choose to do something about it.

One way to identify what has and has not been learned before a test is taken is the employment of a self-testing strategy as students study.

One effective method of self-testing involves the use of notecards. To construct tests, instructors go through lecture and text material and want to know if students have learned selected details. For example, there may be 5 steps to a health economy in text or lecture notes that an instructor wonders if students have learned. What does the instructor do? S/he makes a question based on the details such as "What are the 5 characteristics of a healthy economy?" and places in on an exam. The student's job is to read test questions, recall answers from memory and record them on the test. Since humans tend to get better at that which they practice, it appears that practicing looking at questions and recalling answers from memory is no exception. Since that is the very activity at which students must be efficacious when taking a test, it would be wise to practice looking at questions and recall answers if students want to be better at doing this at test time.

Questions should be based on the nature of the details. Are the details presented in terms of steps, stages, phases, characteristics, how-to's, when, whys, definitions, arguments, pros and cons, outcomes, ramifications, application, etc? Once the nature of the details is determined and the number of the details to be learned is known, a test questions may be constructed.

The 5 steps from the example above may be listed separately on one side of a notecard. Since we know that these are 5 steps for a healthy economy, a possible test question may be constructed.


To begin, using notecards to organize notes makes self-testing easiest. Notecards are recommended because they are:

  1. Easy to carry.
  2. Easy to review in the short time periods which are normally wasted such as between classes, at meals, on the bus, walking to and from class, etc. This reduces study time to the minimum without a sacrifice in grades.
  3. A very simple way to organize notes.
  4. A very fast way to recite material to be learned. Regular recitation of material to be learned speeds the movement of information toward long-term memory which is where it needs to be for accurate recall on exams and after graduation.

During a lecture, it's best to format note information using the Cornell System, outlines, or some other organized format. As soon as possible after lecture, details (which constitute answers keys for tests) should be listed on a notecard and questions then formulated on the other side of the notecard based on the nature of the details, while the lecture is still fresh. This is important because as time passes between lecture and rewriting notes, more and more is normally to be forgotten.

Quiz: What is the easiest way to study using a textbook?

Answer: Read it only once ever, take notes, and then learn from the notes.

Many students are under the mistaken assumption that they learn from textbooks and from lecture. In reality, the major purpose of lectures and textbooks is to provide the information to be learned. It is what is done with this information that results in learning.

Too often students try to learn test material for exams by reading.…….... re reading…........ re reading..…....... re reading..…........ re reading.……....... This is very boring, ineffective, and places students in a position of doing one of those risky behaviors academically of going into a test thinking, feeling, assuming or believing the material has been learned. This places students in an out of control position because it does not allow students to discover what has and has not been learned until a test grade is returned when it is too late to do anything about it. Consequently, students utter statements of futility such as, "I thought I knew that," or "I know that. Why did I miss it?" or "I knew it but I could not remember!" If something is truly learned, it will be remembered. However, if a student's study system leads them only to a position of thinking, feeling, assuming or believing the material has been learned, the study system is defective.

The best time for students to discover what has and has not been learned is before a test is taken when something can still be done about it.


Step 1

Take each set of details from lectures or assigned textbook chapters that could be on a test and use them as a guide to formulating a matching question. The kind of details is the clue to starting a possible exam question for a notecard. For example, if the details are "5 arguments against …………………," a possible test question could be "What are the 5 arguments against………………………..?" The same format works for phases, characteristics, stages, parts, elements, causes and effects, etc.

Why Do Step 1

  1. Separates main ideas from other main ideas making it more difficult to confuse with other main ideas and details during learning and recall.
  2. Visually separates main ideas from their related details making self-testing without seeing clues that can lead to false or pseudolearning more difficult.
  3. Begins the process of mental manipulation of the material to be learned which is vital to human learning and later accurate recall.
  4. Focuses efforts on learning the information needed for exam answers.
  5. When students are involved in formulating questions from important details, they create inquisitiveness for answers, increase concentration, and make resistance to studying more difficult.

Step 2

Visibly separate answers from questions by placing questions on one side of a notecard and answers on the other. For notecards, use 1 question (main idea) and its answer (related details) per notecard.

Why Do Step 2

  1. Clearly identifies and separates main ideas and details which reduces confusion in learning and recall on exams.
  2. Promotes fast but effective recitation and review which reduces study time.
  3. Eases self-testing.
  4. Requires mental manipulation of the information to properly organize it.

Step 3

Recite. In this step, students read the question aloud, recite answers containing related details aloud from memory, as if lecturing a class. Some students may prefer writing answers from memory, as if taking an exam. Verbalizing or writing in complete sentences requires the kinds of thinking skills that move information into long term memory more quickly.

Why do step 3

It is important for learning and remembering to read questions aloud. When reciting aloud, students are using auditory skills which speeds learning. If students are writing the answers, they will be using visual skills in learning which also speeds assimilation of material to be learned and focuses concentration. The more senses that are utilized in learning the more effective is the learning and later recall.

Step 4

Look at answers to check for completeness and accuracy.

Why Do Step 4

  1. Immediately assesses the completeness and accuracy of answers recited or written from memory.
  2. Provides instant feedback on what has and hasn't yet been learned before taking an exam when something can still be done about it.
  3. Reinforces correct answers which increases learning speed and motivation.
  4. Provides immediate corrective feedback for inaccurate or incomplete answers. This prevents learning incorrect or incomplete information.
  5. Decreases study time by limiting the time spent on material already learned. More time and energy is focused on unlearned material where it is most needed.
  6. Test motivation to learn and confidence increases as students discover what material has been learned. Students also reduce test anxiety when they go into a test knowing that the material has been learned. For example, how anxious would students be about an exam on name of 5 family members?

Step 5

If ANSWERS are recited correctly from memory on the 1st try, that notecard should be placed in the "learned" pile.

Why Do Step 5

  1. Seeing progress as material is learned increases confidence and motivation.
  2. Students separate learned from not yet learned ideas, showing where to focus study time and energy.

Step 6

When ANSWERS are inaccurately recited, follow these 6 substeps.

Substep 1. Read an ANSWER aloud as if lecturing a class and/or write it out until students think the material may be recalled correctly and completely from memory.
Substep 2. Read the QUESTION aloud, again or write it out.
Substep 3. Recite the ANSWER aloud and/or write it again without looking.
Substep 4. Check the accuracy of the ANSWER on the back of the notecard. This procedure may have to be repeated several times until the question is finally answered correctly. Students should not move to the next notecard until the current one is completely and correctly recited or written from memory. This is where much learning takes place. As long as students recite the answer incorrectly, repeat substeps 1 4 until recited aloud or written correctly from memory.
Substep 5. When an answer is finally correct, that notecard should be placed in a "not yet learned" pile. Students only get 1 try to determine if the notecard ends up in the "learned" or "not yet learned" pile each time they go over the notecards much like what happens on a real test.
Substep 6 Only now may the student move on to the next notecard to be learned or to check for learning.

Why Do Step 6

  1. THIS IS WHERE LEARNING TAKES PLACE. Without these steps in some form in a system of study, learning is difficult at best.
  2. Immediately fills in missing or incompletely learned information and corrects inaccurately recalled material with complete and accurate information.
  3. Increases concentration and begins the thinking and analyzing processes necessary to learn, understand, and recall information when needed.
  4. Provides practice recalling information needed for correct answers from memory just as students must do on exams.
  5. Is an easily mastered method of learning and to check for learning.
  6. Prevents "thinking," feeling," "assuming, or "believing" material has been learned when it hasn't.
  7. Material needing more review is identified making it ready for quick review in short time periods during the day.

Step 7

As long as answers are recited incorrectly on the first try each time students review, they must be considered "not yet learned."

Why Do Step 7

  1. You only get one chance to record the material correctly on exams.
  2. It's easy to see what has and has not been learned so students may determine how much time to allot for studying and where to focus efforts.

Step 8

Review by reciting/writing answers as often as it takes until students can recall all answers correctly, by memory, on the 1st try the last time they self-test using the notecards.

Why Do Step 8

  1. Only this way can students know for sure that material is learned or not.
  2. As the number of times one reviews increases, the greater are the chances of recall at test time.
  3. "One becomes better at that which is practiced." If looking at questions and recalling answers from memory is practiced, students are likely to become better at the vary activity essential for doing well on exams.
  4. If students practice not looking at questions and recalling answers, they become better at that, also. For example, if students practice not solving algebra problems, they become more skillful at that.

Watch out for Fading!

It is normal for fading (forgetting) to begin immediately after a human being hears or reads something. Therefore, it seems wise for success in college to interfere with the normal process of forgetting. That means the regular reviews of the notecards that have been learned is a good idea to combat the normal process of forgetting.

Students should reself-test over learned material 2-3 times per week or more to prevent something that is absolutely normal when material is not reviewed often enough: fading and eventually forgetting.

The number of reviews needed to earn "A's" varies. A few students can review 3 times and earn an "A" on a test while others must review 5, 9, or 12 or more times to earn an "A," depending on the subject matter.

Learning speed is individual and has no correlation with intelligence and this is normal. Learning speed does affect how many reviews each person must do to earn an "A".

How many reviews each student needs in order to earn an "A" is revealed when: 1) the number of reviews is identified that the student performed to prepare for the test or quiz and 2) the completeness and accuracy of the material on the notecards is determined in a posttest review. If grades are less than desired, students should verify if notes were complete and accurate and increase the number of reviews for the next exam.

Using this self-testing system properly, there will be only 3 reasons students will ever miss anything on an exam:

  1. There was information on an exam not on notecards. In a posttest review, students many identify what clues to important details and main ideas were missed in lectures or textbooks to be sure that the same mistakes are not repeated.
  2. Information was on notecards but students did not recite them frequently enough or in the proper manner. This may also be remedied.
  3. Students deliberately recorded answers incorrectly on the exam. Most students are not likely to do this.

Develop An Individual Style

Students should feel free to develop an individual self testing style using the above basic fundamentals as a guide. Grades earned on tests and quizzes will provide feedback if further refinement is needed in self testing methods. The advice and guidance of a campus learning skills specialist is also helpful here.

Don't give up if desired results are not obtained on the 1st try. How well did you do the first time you rode a bike without training wheels? Persistence to refine self testing methods will eventually earn the grades of which students are capable when this powerful technique for learning is mastered.

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