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Uncovering the Secret World of High Test Performers
(and how your students can do better)

Your student’s brains seem wired to forget much of what they learn, especially at test time. This might seem a bit discouraging to you, but it is true, but it is actually a good thing. Yes, forgetting can be a good thing … but NOT when you want students to show what they know.

Keep reading and you’ll learn 5 brain-smart strategies you can start using TODAY to help your students retain the important learning anytime you want them to show what they know.

The Research

This month we are focusing on how to maximize your efforts with your students in preparation for ANY TYPE OF TESTING. Do you feel like there is never enough time to learn all that is expected of your students? Not enough time to review it all before testing begins? Too much test anxiety pumping through your students’ hearts and minds? Not enough resources for struggling students? Do you get frustrated when your students “forget” what you taught them? If so, keep reading – you are in the right place.

Let’s first understand why forgetting can actually be a good thing.

Many people have long held the paradigm that forgetting is a neurological loss – when we forget something we are losing critical information. Well, it is true that it is a loss. Some neurobiologists are starting to see forgetting as an essential evolutionary strategy of getting rid of information that is not critical for the species’ survival (Richards & Frankland, 2017). We naturally remember things that are meaningful or essential for our safety. Much of the rest of the information we come across gets discarded.

That all sounds interesting, except for when it is your content that is getting tossed out with last weeks’ garbage, right? Then, student forgetting is NOT a good thing. And many students are forgetting A LOT of what is being taught.

I’ve sifted through the actual research to bring you evidence-based principles to guide you through this testing season.

With that in mind, here are 5 tools to guide you through this testing season. They will make your teaching and test-prep more effective and meaningful. And your students will perform better, with less anxiety.

1. Connect concepts

Learning happens when you connect new ideas to something you already know. It can be connected to something you learned previously in the class, or something completely unrelated to the subject. The connection is strongest if it involves something relevant and meaningful to the student. This answers the student’s biological self-referencing question of “why?”

Here’s how:

  • Use VISUAL CONNECTING TOOLS. These include mind maps, pictures, or other illustrative diagrams. Mind maps help students see the big picture of what they have learned and how it all relates together. When learning is accompanied with pictures or other diagrams, students are better able to recall and perform better on assessments (Bui & McDaniel, 2015).
  • Use SEMANTIC CONNECTING TOOLS. Include culturally relevant analogies, metaphors, and mnemonics as often as appropriate. When you say, “Think of this symbol ‘>’ as an alligator’s mouth. He is very hungry and will always eat the bigger number,” you are connecting new learning to something they already know about. In essence, you are borrowing brain power from all their previous knowledge to help make the new learning stick (Putnam, 2015).

2. Use retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is far more effective than “studying”. Retrieval is any activity that challenges the learner to mentally, verbally or visually retrieve, information previously learned WITHOUT LOOKING IT UP. Studying, on the other hand, often involves staring at a book or notes trying to review information and hoping. The research is clear – retrieval practice does more than improve test scores … it enhances student learning (Karpicke, 2012).

Here’s how:

  • Use a variety of retrieval tools such as flash cards, self-quizzing, questions at the end of the chapter, etc. Practice tests are also highly effective as a retrieval strategy. Periodic practice tests are more beneficial for learning than restudying, and students who take practice tests perform better on the actual assessment than those who don’t (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017).
  • Use a variety of student-to-student retrieval activities. When students talk about what they have learned it reactivates their memories and solidifies the learning (Sekeres, et al., 2016). But ensure you have an error-correction or “checking” system in place. Some students can get sloppy.

3. Interleave concepts

When designing your retrieval activities, be sure to interleave concepts together. Interleaving concepts provides students opportunities to think about what approach is best for that specific problem, thus better encoding the learning (Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).

Why does this work? Interleaving concepts helps the brain detect similarities and differences in the learning. It is one way to engage in the brain’s “compare and contrast” faculties that will help them avoid getting fooled by a teaser on the test.

Here’s how:

  • Mix up the types of problems students are asked to solve instead of grouping them all together. For example, ask students to study a war from up to five different perspectives (leadership, soldiers, the aggressor country, families, culture, economics, victims, ecology, etc.). This is a deep dive into the learning that ensures students understand context.
  • As another example, instead of USING three questions about World War II, have one question about WWII, another about WWI, and a third about Napoleon’s invasions. When you do this, you help students differentiate problems on a test better. When all the same types of problems are grouped together, students are missing out on the important step of determining the correct strategy.

4. Spaceout retrieval

Students will retain information better when they re-engage with the content periodically (Kang, 2016). When they learn something once, and then never work with that material again, their brain is indirectly receiving a message that the information is not relevant or critical for their survival. So, review new information within 30 minutes of learning it. Review it again within a week, and then periodically (based on difficulty) leading up to the exam. Three retrievals is ideal.

Here’s how:

  • Sprinkle in a few “review” type of questions on homework assignments to challenge their retrieval systems.
  • Create daily or weekly traditions around spaced retrieval such as bell ringers, ticket-out-the-door, pop-quizzes, etc.
  • Remember to provide constant feedback with these retrievals to keep the learning on track.

5. Emotional regulation

Students never over-perform (scoring more than they know) in testing situations. Your goal is to help your students score UP TO their knowledge level. When students are unable to self-regulate their emotions, they underperform.

Staying calm in a testing situation is critical for retrieval. When a student feels emotionally distressed (from outside influences or test anxiety) it impedes their ability to successfully retrieve information. Remember, there is no “distress” out there in the world (or in the classroom).

We generate distress as a response to our environment when we feel threatened or a loss of control. Teach your students how to manage their responses with tools. You can help them feel less threatened (reframe the purpose or stakes in the test) and more in control (self-regulation tools).

Here’s how:

  • Teach your students simple breathing exercises and basic mindfulness skills to stay present and calm in a testing situation. More oxygen to the brain is a good thing!
  • Help students create a positive affirmation (this may be a self-pep talk) about tests that they can repeat to themselves as they prepare for and take a test. Phrases like, “C’mon! Give me that test!” or “Bring it on! Let me show you what I know!” … (Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011; Wang, Shim, & Wolters, 2017). You might even want to adopt a class-wide affirmation that they all shout together before a testing situation.
  • Teach students a sequence for successful testing. (For example: “Attitude + 2 deep breaths + affirm your confidence + preview test + do easiest first + check work + keep moving + recheck).

Testing season is often a stressful time for everyone at a school. But it does not have to be that way. Stress is NOT a given: change your responses and change your results.

Pick one of these 5 tools to try out today, and commit yourself to a more efficient and stress-free testing season. You can do it!


Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659-701.

Bui, D. C., & Mcdaniel, M. A. (2015). Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4(2), 129-135.

Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12-19.

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163.

Putnam, A. L. (2015). Mnemonics in education: Current research and applications. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 1(2), 130-139.

Richards, B. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2017). The Persistence and Transience of Memory. Neuron94(6), 1071-1084.

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., & Stershic, S. (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 900-908.

Sekeres, M. J., Bonasia, K., St-Laurent, M., Pishdadian, S., Winocur, G., Grady, C., & Moscovitch, M. (2016). Recovering and preventing loss of detailed memory: differential rates of forgetting for detail types in episodic memory. Learning & Memory, 23(2), 72-82.

Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of Self-Talk: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(5), 666-687.

Wang, C., Shim, S. S., & Wolters, C. A. (2017). Achievement goals, motivational self-talk, and academic engagement among Chinese students. Asia Pacific Education Review, 18(3), 295-307

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