The best way to study and learn

Students and teachers have been debating for years about the best way to learn material for a test, and have invented countless strategies. I used to read my notes, aloud, over and over again. A friend made thousands of flash cards over the course her college career. Some folks put their notebooks under their pillows at night.

Recent research from scholars at Purdue University suggests that practicing the recall of information by taking practice tests may be the most effective method of learning and retaining new information over time.

Researchers set up a study that compared how well students recalled information after studying, and how well students could recall that information a week after the original study and testing sessions.

Using foreign language vocabulary word pairs, we examined the contributions of repeated study and repeated testing to learning by comparing a standard learning condition to three dropout conditions.

In repeated study-test-study-test scenarios, when students continued to study material that they previously got right on a test, but were not tested on that material in subsequent tests, they didn’t do as well on the final test. When students were continuously tested on material that they got right, they did better on the final test whether they continued to study the material or not.

The study by Karpicke and Roediger (2008) is in the February 15 issue of Science. You can view additional commentary on the Pure Pedantry Blog at

Karpicke, J.D. and H.L. Roediger. 2008. The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science. 319: 966-968. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152408