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Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing

Many of us dread tests because we’ve been wounded by a few over the years, and sometimes severely. Almost everyone has had at least one lost-in-space experience, opening an exam to find a long list of questions that seem to hail from another course altogether. Vision narrows, the mind seizes; all feeling drains from the extremities. We would crawl into a hole if we weren’t already in one.

Yet another species of exam collapse is far more common. These are the cases in which we open the test and see familiar questions on material we’ve studied, perhaps even stuff we’ve highlighted with yellow marker: names, ideas, formulas we could recite easily only yesterday. And still we lay an egg, scoring average or worse.

Why does this happen? Psychologists have studied learning long enough to have an answer, and typically it’s not a lack of effort (or of some elusive test-taking gene). The problem is that we have misjudged the depth of what we know. We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. Such fluency misperceptions are automatic; they form subconsciously and render us extremely poor judges of what we need to restudy or practice again. “We know that if you study something twice, in spaced sessions, it’s harder to process the material the second time, and so people think it’s counterproductive,” Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, said. “But the opposite is true: You learn more, even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgment.”

The best way to overcome this illusion is testing, which also happens to be an effective study technique in its own right.