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English learners can improve their ability to remember and use new words by testing themselves.

This idea comes from Sarah Lynn, an educational consultant and teacher at Harvard University's Bridge Program.

She adds that self-testing improves retrieval – the ability to use and remember new words. Beyond improving the learner's ability to retrieve information, self-testing improves the learner's confidence, too.


If you are like many learners, you may have faced a situation such as this one:

Person 1: Hey! Did you study the new English grammar lesson?

Person 2: No, I don't need to. I already know that topic.

[The day after the test]

Person 1: Hey! How did you do on the English grammar test?

Person 2: I don't want to talk about it. I thought I knew the lesson…

This dialogue shows a common situation: Language learners think they understand a topic. Yet when asked to use what they learned, they are not able to remember the information.

Not being able to retrieve new ideas could happen on a test or even in a conversation. The basic problem is this: Learners did not learn something as well as they thought they did.

Learning takes effort. It takes effort because the learning process changes the brain, says Sarah Lynn.

One way it changes the brain is by creating connections. These connections, which we discussed in previous education stories, are called dendrites.

Lynn suggests that dendrite connections are important for retrieval.

There are three main ideas about how to grow dendrites and improve retrieval, says Lynn.

We covered the first two ideas – making connections and using repetition – in previous education stories.

The third method to grow dendrite connections is to test yourself.

Lynn is not the only expert who recommends self-testing.

A paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition tells about the benefits of testing yourself.*

The paper says one benefit of testing practice is that it improves retrieval. Retrieving information once makes retrieving that information easier in the future.

In addition, the paper says, when students test themselves as part of studying, they learn what they do not know. When students know what they do not understand, they can pay attention to improving their weaknesses.

Close the book

Lynn recommends that learners test themselves by getting away from what they are studying. Then, they should test themselves by thinking about what they have learned.

She recommends that learners make themselves write or speak something. Lynn suggests reading something or watching a video on the topic, then summarizing it. This will allow learners to test what they know:

"But actually, if you close the book, or turn off the YouTube video, and then write down, or audio record yourself of what you remember, and then you go back, and you see what it is, that's when you really begin to construct your own understanding of the new knowledge. And you begin to organize it, and control it, and eventually master it."

The benefits of such practice, Lynn says, are not just about improving your ability to remember information. By testing yourself, you can build confidence in the skills you have developed.

When you test yourself, Lynn says, you will see how much progress you have made. This progress will satisfy and encourage you to do more in the future.

What can you do?

#1 Make flashcards

The next time you are studying English, try to test yourself. A simple way to test vocabulary is to create flashcards with clues on one side and the answer on the back.

Flashcards in the past were small cards or pieces of paper with a word or a question on one side and the meaning or answer to the question on the other side. Students used them to quiz each other or quiz themselves to review for examinations.

Now, many online services allow students to create digital flashcards.

One such service is Quizlet, where learners can do a variety of activities based on one set of new words or information. You can match words and meanings, write a word after looking at a picture, or listen to a word and write it. You can also play games with the new words and meanings.

#2 Ask yourself questions

Another way is to ask yourself questions at the end of the day, at the end of a study session, or at other times. Lynn recommends that learners ask questions such as, "What did I learn today? What were those words I thought were interesting? What was that verb tense I learned? How does it work?"

The important point is this: Effective learning takes time, effort and practice.

Do not just assume that you can read something once or twice and fully understand it. Even if you highlight important points or take notes in a class, you probably do not fully understand what you learned.

After all, Olympic athletes cannot learn how to swim or run just from reading a book. They have to practice swimming or running every day for years. They often compete in races to test their skills. Like those athletes, successful language learners practice as much as they can, and test themselves to improve their skills.

Self-testing is one way to improve your retrieval and inform your future course of study. Give it a try, and let us know how it works for you.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

*Roediger III, Henry L. and Pyc, Mary A. Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 1 (2012) 242-248.

Transparent Language also hosts a flash card sharing website.

TESOL reviews sites where learners can use free flashcards or make their own.


Words in This Story

consultant – n. a person who gives professional advice or services to companies for a fee

retrieval – n. the act or process of getting and bringing back something

dendrite – n. a short branched extension of a nerve cell, along which impulses received from other cells at synapses are transmitted to the cell body

benefit – n. a good or helpful result or effect

flashcard – n. a card that has words, numbers, or pictures on it and that is used to help students learn about a subject

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