Self-Quizzing: The Key to Learning Better

Educational Consultant, Research Psychologist, and Writer

Oct   2013



Get ready to be brilliant. Really. You are about to discover a secret that will help you learn more effectively.

In a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, John Dunlosky and his colleagues examined the effectiveness of various learning techniques. They included a variety of methods (see below) everyone has used at one time or another. What they found will be surprising to most people, but will make sense once you think about it.

The two most effective techniques were practice testing (asking yourself questions about what you studied) and distributed practice (studying in relatively small segments over a period of time). The other techniques varied in effectiveness from moderate to low. Curiously, recent surveys cited by the authors indicate that students seem to favor rereading and highlighting, two strategies that have relatively low utility.

The effectiveness of distributed practice has been known for quite some time. William James, a pioneer in modern psychology, made the case for it in 1901. And in the hierarchy of demonstrating learning, recall (the ability to remember information) is superior to recognition (knowing the correct answer when you see it) or relearning (how quickly you can learn something you once knew but kind of forgot).

If you have something to learn or remember, distributed practice and self-quizzing will be helpful. Any method that helps us learn better is worthwhile.

Here are the 10 techniques examined in the study:

  1. Elaborative interrogation (generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true).
  2. Self-explanation (explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving).
  3. Summarization (writing summaries [of various lengths] of to-be-learned texts).
  4. Highlighting/underlining (marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading).
  5. Keyword mnemonic (using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials).
  6. Imagery for text (attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening).
  7. Rereading (restudying text material again after an initial reading).
  8. Practice testing (self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material)
  9. Distributed practice (implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time).
  10. Interleaved practice (implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session).

Have you ever tried practice testing or distributed practice? Have any of the other above techniques worked best for you?

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About Michael Milone, Ph.D.

Michael Milone, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Milone is a nationally recognized research psychologist and award-winning educational writer. He earned a Ph.D. in 1978 from The Ohio State University and has served in an adjunct capacity at Ohio State, the University of Arizona, Gallaudet University, and New Mexico State University. He has taught in regular and special education programs at all levels, holds a Master of Arts degree from Gallaudet University, and is fluent in American Sign Language. He served on the board of directors of the Association of Educational Publishers, was a member of the Literacy Assessment Committee of the International Reading Association, and is a past chair of the Technology and Literacy Committee of the International Reading Association. He contributed to both and Technology & Learning magazine on a regular basis. He currently serves on the Research Advisory Board of Renaissance Learning the Education Advisory Team of Bluenose Edutainment, and the Albert J. Harris Award Committee of the International Reading Association. His publications include two novels, several standardized tests, hundreds of articles, and a puzzle called Diminish with both print and app versions. He has completed 33 marathons, two Ironman triathlons, and hundreds of other races, including the Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon.