Lessons from Learning Science: The Testing Effect

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Lessons from Learning Science: The Testing Effect by Chelsey Cooley

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Here’s one surprising way to speed up your GRE studies: quiz yourself. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to take a lot of practice tests. Think smaller. To reap the benefits of the “testing effect,” give yourself frequent, small quizzes on whichever topics you’ve studied lately. Here’s how and why it works.

What is the testing effect?

In recent decades, a number of studies have looked at simple ways to improve learning. One phenomenon revealed by these studies is known as the testing effect. To uncover the testing effect, researchers typically split students into two or more groups: some students take a number of quizzes throughout a class, while others are tested rarely or not at all. When it comes time for the final exam, students who have been tested more frequently show a significantly higher level of performance, even though both groups studied the same material.

Start thinking of the GRE as your “final exam,” and leverage the testing effect to improve your grade. Don’t just study by reading or watching videos. Incorporate a timed quiz at the beginning or end of every study session, then grade yourself.

Why does it work?

Picture all the times you’ve taken quizzes in school. First, knowing that there would be a quiz meant you were really held accountable for the material. Despite your best intentions, if you’re studying on your own, it can be hard to make yourself really understand a tough or boring topic. Knowing that there’s a quiz coming afterwards will help.

Also, your brain loves missing quiz questions (even if it sometimes doesn’t feel that way.) The absolute best way to learn GRE strategy is by making mistakes. You can read or talk about the content of the test, but you won’t really know what mistakes to watch out for unless you’ve made a few. Success is nice, but failure is great for learning. Quizzing yourself frequently gives you a lot of low-stakes opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. Plus, there are few things more motivating for a lifelong student than seeing that red “x” next to a problem.

How can you make the testing effect work for you?

For the next week, try incorporating one or two short, timed quizzes of 3-5 questions into every single study session. There are two great ways to find relevant questions for these quizzes. First, if you’re studying with the Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides, every guide contains “check your skills” problems and end-of-chapter problem sets. Second, the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems is divided into chapters based on content areas. If you’re learning about a particular topic and you want to check your work, pick a few problems from the matching chapter, set your timer, and get to work. If you miss a problem or two, that’s great – review them carefully and come back to them in a later study session.

To really step things up, do some questions before you study a topic. If you start learning about coordinate geometry by trying a couple of coordinate geometry problems, then when you start reading the chapter, you’ll already know what you need to learn about. You won’t just be blindly trying to take in the information – instead, you’ll have a framework for which problems you don’t know how to solve yet. It doesn’t matter if you miss every single problem on your first try! You can always try them again later.

One of the hardest things about studying for the GRE is the time commitment it involves. Luckily, there’s been a lot of research done on ways to study effectively. If you study efficiently and thoughtfully, you’ll be able to get a surprising amount of work done in less time than you might think. The testing effect gives you one great way to make this happen. ?


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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