Self-Testing: A Top Study technique?

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


What is Self-Testing?

An excellent review of over 700 research articles pertaining to study techniques has been made by Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Mitchell, and Willingham and published in the Winter 2015 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind (a copy is held in reserve at the Langara College Library for students to consult – the citation of the article is provided in “references” below).

The top technique for learning and memory reported by Dunlovsky et al. with respect to exam/quiz preparation is the self-testing technique.  As noted by the researchers:

“…practice tests are done by students on their own, outside of class … Although most students prefer to take as few tests as possible, hundreds of experiments show that self-testing improves learning and retentionPractice testing works across an impressive range of formats, content, learner ages and retention intervals.” (Dunlovsky et al., 2015, p.43)

There are a variety of methods such as flash cards and the Cornell System which are effective. A self-testing technique developed by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.) of the Langara College Counselling Department is to give yourself Short, Timed Quizzes (without looking at Your Notes, etc.). The technique is as follows (see also Handout):

  1. Take a sheet of paper
  2. Select a topic that you will be examined on
  3. Set a timer before starting your quiz (on average make your quiz 5-10 minutes – you want to quiz a topic covered in class or part of chapter, etc.; of course you can adjust the time depending on how much content or concepts you want to quiz yourself on)
  4. Begin the Quiz: focus on exam-relevant topics (items your instructor deems important for your course) – explain the key concepts in your own words.
  5. When time is up: stop and give yourself a quick break
  6. Consult your notes and/or textbook to see if your quiz content is correct

Note that timed quizzes can still help revive your recall 7-10 days and even a month later, but, it is most effective when You Do this earlier (within 1-2 Days or within the week) …

Self-Testing: “Hippocampus-Neocortex Workout”?

So how does self-testing work with the brain? Thanks to increasingly sophisticated research by cognitive and learning psychologists, we are fairly certain that the Hippocampus region of the brain in the Limbic system plays a critical role in forming and maintaining your memories. As noted by Mackay (citation of the article is provided in “references” below):

Just as a builder can make a new structure or repair a damaged one, so could the hippocampus craft new memories to replace those that have been degraded or fragmented over time. Such rebuilding might occur whenever someone re-encounters a forgotten word … In this way, recent exposure and learning could shore up a shattered memory and reduce the rate of loss.” (McKay, 2017, p.16-17)

So to summarize:

  1. The Hippocampus is a “Builder”: this works to create permanent memories in your Neocortex (see Handouts for Frontal Cortex and Temporal Lobes).
  2. Cortical Memories are some what like a “Database” or “Library”: your “memories” are essentially connections between your neurons (often in clusters) in your Neocortex. See these handouts for tips on making powerful connections for Learning and Memory and Chunking and Organizing Information for Learning and Recall.
  3. Self-testing gives your  Hippocampus  and Neocortex a “Workout” … by helping you  out with Memory Challenges such as Lack of recall, Falsified recall (see Handout for Falsified Recall), and Misconceptions (see Handout for Misconceptions)

Our memories do gradually weaken or fade with lack of practice and use. The Hippocampus which pretty much works to form your memories, also works to rebuild memories that are fading. This is where in addition to Self-Testing, you can also use Flashcards to strengthen and/or restore memory items you need to know for an upcoming exam or quiz.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Mitchell, J.N., & Willingham, D.T. (2015). What works, what doesn’t: some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time – but which ones are which? An unprecedented review maps out the best pathways to follow. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.41-47.

MacKay, D.G. (2017). The engine of memory. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp. 11-17.

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