Improving Memory and Recall When Studying for Tests

When preparing for an examination, which of the following do you believe is the most effective way to study?

a) Read the chapter in the text book and then answer the questions in the back of the chapter
b) Answer the chapter questions prior to studying the chapter
c) Read the text book without attending to the chapter questions

It is my guess that many of you will attempt to read on without struggling to first answer the above question. However, research has shown that when students first attempt to answer relevant questions prior to reading new material, they are more likely to remember the material. Further, when presented with a question, students who first try to guess the answer before it is given to them, are more likely to remember the answer when compared to students who are simply given the correct answer. The above flies in the face of older notions that students learn best through so-called “errorless learning”: learning that ensures students do not practice wrong answers. In fact, students remember new material better and longer if prior to learning the material, they are given a challenging test they are certain to fail. It seems the very act of trying and failing to retrieve the answer, assists students to retain new information.

Implications for Students:

a) Prior to reading a textbook chapter, students should look at the end of the chapter and attempt to answer the study questions.

b) In a book that does not offer study questions or when reading any new material, students should look at the chapter headings (or table of contents) and convert the headings into questions. For example, if the heading title is “Impressionist Art”, prior to reading the chapter, a student might ask themselves:

  • What is impressionist art (or what are the features particular to impressionist art)?
  • Who were the most famous impressionists?
  • When did they live?

It is critical to make an attempt to answer these questions even if you know nothing about impressionism. Then read the chapter and attempt to answer your questions as you are reading it. After completing the chapter, go back to your questions and try answering them again. If you miss any questions, re-study the part of the chapter that deals with that question. After a few days, try again to answer your questions reviewing the answers to any questions you got wrong.

c) When using search engines to look for answers to questions, first attempt to answer the question yourself. Then look it up.


When students test themselves prior to studying new material, they recall the new material better and for longer than students who do not take a “pre-test” prior to studying. Whether or not the student initially succeeds in generating the correct answer is beside the point. The process of attempting to get the right answer is much more useful then just studying alone, as long as the student receives the correct information soon after. From an educational standpoint, educators should challenge their students by requiring them to answer questions prior to teaching material, without concern for their pre-learning knowledge base.

The above information is based on the following studies and reading material:

Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Henry L. Roediger lll and Jeffrey D. Karpicke in Psychological Science, Volume 17, No. 3, pages 249-255; March 2006

The Pluses of Getting it Wrong. Henry L. Roediger III and Bridgid Finn in Scientific American Mind, Pages 39-41; March/April 2010

Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning. Nate Kornell, Mathew Hays and Robert Bjork in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, Vol. 35, no. 4, pages 989-998; July 2009

The Pretesting Effect: Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learing? Lindsey E. Richland, Nate Kornell and Liche Sean Kao in Journal of Experimenal Psychology: Applied, Vol. 15, No. 3, pages 243-257; September 2009

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