Trial and error learning is frequently called for on this blog; students today, more than ever, like to tinker, like to experiment, like to try things out, and figure out as they go, and, I’d suggest, they are learning more and retaining more knowledge when they conduct their learning in this fashion.

This month’s Scientific American Mind chimes in to say that “learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that students make errors.”

People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, they showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning.

In the experiments cited, students retained memories of new learning better after first trying to work out the answer to the question before the information was provided; by using their brain to try to figure out an answer to a vexing question, they primed their brain to remember the information when provided.

By challenging ourselves to retrieve or generate answers we can improve our recall. Keep that in mind next time you turn to Google for an answer, and give yourself a little more time to come up with the answer on your own.

Students might consider taking the questions in the back of the textbook chapter and try to answer them before reading the chapter.  Then read the chapter and answer the questions while reading it. When the chapter is finished, go back to the questions and try answering them again. For any you miss, restudy that section of the chapter. Then wait a few days and try to answer the questions again (restudying when you need to). Keep this practice up on all the chapters you read before the exam and you will be have learned the material in a durable manner and be able to retrieve it long after you have left the course.

Of course, these are general-purpose strategies and work for any type of material, not just textbooks. And remember, even if you get the questions wrong as you self-test yourself during study the process is still useful, indeed much more useful than just studying. Getting the answer wrong is a great way to learn.