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5 Ways Taking Tests Can Make You Smarter - GoLeanSixSigma.com

In his latest book, How We Learn, author Benedict Carey makes the case that the dreaded “Test” is actually one of the best methods of learning available. The process of preparing for the test, as well as taking the actual test, can improve your retention of all the tools and concepts you studied. If you’re trying to become a Green Belt or master some other body of knowledge, this is great news.

The way we study and practice for tests makes a difference. The following are great ways to improve two big factors related to memory: retention and recall. Apparently we retain almost everything we see and hear, it’s the recall that’s tricky. Try out these 5 simple methods whether you’re preparing for a quiz, a presentation or just trying to operate better on the fly.

1. Quiz Yourself

Highlighting in books and even creating study guides does very little for retention. In fact, they leave you with the false impression that you actually know the material better than you do. Turn those highlighted paragraphs into little tests for recall and you’ve got something. You can:

2. Change the Venue

Research shows that studying in the same place every time, looking at the same four walls can lower the effectiveness of your efforts. Try moving to a different room, going outside or working in another part of the room. Introduce music where possible. Studying with different stimuli and environments improves your ability to recall information in differing contexts. You can:

  • Visit your favorite coffee shop
  • Go to your local library
  • Sit at a bench in your neighborhood park
  • Make use of your empty conference room

3. Create Practice Intervals

Take a break. Giving your brain a chance to “forget” some of what you’ve learned and then working hard to retrieve it after a break improves your ability to recall the information. The theory is that your brain gets to exercise its memory muscle a little harder after a break, and the extra work strengthens the memory. You can:

  • Take a short walk
  • Go to the gym
  • Make some coffee or tea
  • Wait a week

4. Randomize the Review

Avoid devoting a block of time to just one topic. Jump from one topic to another as you quiz yourself. Make sure you’re not remembering facts in a specific order such that you can’t recall them unless they’re presented in that order or with similar information. Increase your flexibility of recalling information in any order. You can use the items you’ve created in #1 above and:

5. Sleep On It

Sleep improves retention and comprehension. Studies show that sleep helps people consolidate their learning. When comparing test scores, the results showed that people scored better on a given topic after a good night’s sleep than when tested immediately after learning the topic. It’s like a mini-interval – test it out for yourself! Be sure to:

  • Wind down before bed to help you get to sleep better
  • Get a good night’s rest (8 hours)

And, in case the words “quiz,” “test,” or even worse, “exam” give you the cold sweats, then try calling it “retrieval practice” since that’s all you’re doing. You’re increasing your ability to call up that hard won knowledge whenever you need it. We’ve all had the experience of reading a chapter in a book or just a page and wondering what we just read. Now you’ve got five new ways to keep the facts you want ready for instant recall.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.