This week’s post will highlight the importance of testing yourself when studying. It also contains useful resources.
To remember things, test yourself!
Vocabulary can be very difficult to learn and remember. The problem is that there is just so much vocabulary! To become a fluent speaker of academic or professional English, you need to know several thousand words. How can anyone remember that many words?
Scientists who study memory have found that the best way to remember information for a long time is to practice recalling or retrieving it. In other words, when studying, you should test yourself and prove that you can remember the information you need. You should not simply look at a vocabulary list or re-read a book chapter; you need to test yourself for effective studying.
Take a look at this experimental result from Karpicke and Roediger (2008), The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning:
In the experiment above, four groups of college students learned 40 vocabulary words from a foreign language. In two of the groups, the students studied the vocabulary by testing themselves over and over. In the other two groups, the students did not study by testing themselves: after they learned the words, one group reviewed the word list by looking at it, and the other group didn’t review it at all. After one week, the groups who studied by testing themselves remembered about 32/40 words, while the other groups remembered only about 14/40 words. Pretty impressive difference!
How can you test yourself when studying a language like English? If you need to learn and remember thousands of words, how can you find enough time to study? Well, living in an English-speaking country is a great way to accomplish this goal! All day, you need to speak to people in English and read signs in English. This constantly tests your English and forces you to remember the vocabulary you know.
Not everyone can go to an English speaking country, though. In addition, you will probably return home someday to a non-English speaking country. So what else can people do to practice lots of vocabulary?
Spaced Repetition Rehearsal Software
There are several computer programs designed to help you study vocabulary by testing yourself. A typical program uses digital flashcards. The program will analyze your correct and incorrect answers to determine which words you know well and which words you don’t know well. The program will test you often on words you don’t know well, and it will only rarely test you on words it thinks you know well.
The chart below demonstrates how this works. When you first learn a word, you are likely to forget it quickly unless you practice it soon (light blue line), so the program will test you on that word one or two days later (FIRST REMINDER). If you remember it successfully, your memory becomes stronger, so you will remember the word longer (red line). The program will now wait about a week before testing you again (SECOND REMINDER)… And then a month or two (THIRD REMINDER, FOURTH REMINDER)… And eventually, years! This is called spaced repetition, because the space becomes longer between each repetition of the vocabulary word.
By using software like this to study, you can confidently remember thousands of vocabulary words!
These programs are perfect for studying and memorizing lots of vocabulary, which is very helpful for listening and reading. However, flashcards typically do not help you to improve your pronunciation, grammar, fluency, organization, or other important speaking and writing skills. Vocabulary is important, but it is not the only thing you should focus on! Practicing speaking and writing in English is always important, too.
Spaced Repetition Rehearsal software
- Anki is one of the most popular SRS flashcard program right now. You can use it on your computer, a smartphone, or a web browser. The iPhone app costs money, but other features are free.
- Mnemosyne is the program that I used to use when I was a university student. It is also free.
- SuperMemo is a non-free program that was first developed in 1987 and is still updated today. Its creator, Piotr Wozniak, invented the idea of spaced repetition rehearsal software.
- Quizlet.com is a (mostly) free website which helps you practice vocabulary in many ways. Their “Long-Term Learning” mode is based on space repetition, and even their “Learn” mode now incorporates some aspects of spaced repetition.