How can you tell if you have really learnt something?
There is a huge gap between being familiar with something and really knowing it. This is probably illustrated well by working out how many songs can you sing off by heart (probably not many) compared to how many can you sing along to (probably quite a lot). That is because the former is familiar and the latter you really know.
So, is there a way to ensure that students don’t fall into this familiarity trap as they prepare and revise for their exams? If they can answer ‘yes’ to each of the following, this will mean that they really understand and know what they have been learning…
- Answer a question on it as part as a multiple choice quiz
Answering a question on a topic uses a method known as retrieval practice, an effective strategy that has been proven by research to help students remember information for longer. Retrieval practice is a useful strategy as it helps students cope with the nerves associated with exams. We also now know how to design the perfect multiple choice test, which should offer a good starting point.
- Explain it in your own words
If a student can explain a concept in their own words rather than simply repeating what is written in a textbook, they can be sure that they really know and understand it. Having such a depth of knowledge about a concept is beneficial, because it makes it more likely that the information will be transferred to long term memory.
- Teach it to someone else
One of the best ways to check if you really know something is to teach it to someone else. This is because, in order to be able to teach the material to someone else, students need to have categorised the information clearly in their own head and made full sense of it. Research has shown that even expecting to teach the information to someone else causes students to remember 12% more information.
- Apply the information to a different context
Taking the information they have learnt and applying it to a different context demonstrates that students know and understand it. This is what psychologists refer to as ‘transfer’. Having this ability shows that they are able to understand the processes being tested and apply them to new situations.
- Compare and contrast it with something else
Another way in which students can check whether they really know something is by comparing and contrasting the information they have learnt with aspects of their previous knowledge. If students are able to understand the similarities and differences and make the relevant connections between this concept and another, then they have a good understanding of it.
- Answer a question in test conditions
In the same way that a golfer wouldn’t practise for a golf competition by never playing golf, students shouldn’t study for an exam by never answering a question in test conditions. Testing themselves on a question in test conditions allows students to understand the type of answer they are able to produce in the time given. It also allows them to identify the areas that they have mastered, and those that need to be re-visited and improved upon.
- Recall the relevant information under pressure
We all know that we often panic and forget information when we are under pressure. Research evidence indicates that when you replicate the same experiences and emotions whilst learning something, you are better able to recall it again later on.
- Remember it after a long period of time
Learning is a change to one’s long term memory. If you can’t remember it for a large period of time, then it has only ever been learnt on a superficial level. This is why spacing is such a good revision technique, as it ensures that information is regularly revisited to cement it into long term memory. This technique has been proven to result in test scores that are 10 to 30% higher when compared to the scores of students who used cramming.
The stress associated with exams will never be fully eradicated. However, if students have tested themselves under pressure and in timed conditions, taught the information to someone else, and can remember it after a long period of time, they can enter the exam room with fewer nerves. They can be confident that they really do know the necessary information and will be able to accurately recall it when they need it the most.