Written by Alyssa Walker

A new study finds that making mistakes while studying actually helps you learn better. 

Canada's Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care recently published "Making mistakes while studying actually helps you learn better," in the journal Memory. 

Dr. Nicole Anderson, the senior author on the paper and senior scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute and a professor at the University of Toronto, said, "Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a 'near miss' can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all." She added, "These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily."

Part of the study examined the memories of 32 young adults with no Spanish background guess the English translation of certain Spanish term. The study's authors used cognates--those words that looked the same and mean the same, like "carro" and "car; and false cognates--those that look the same that mean something different, like "carpeta," which looks like "carpet," but really means "folder."

Researchers found, unsurprisingly, that the study participants could better remember the true cognates.

Their conclusion?  Dr. Anderson said, "Based on these findings, someone studying for an exam should only take practice quizzes after reviewing the material." She added, "If a person takes a practice test and is unfamiliar with the content, they risk making guesses that are nowhere near the right answer. This could make it harder for them to learn the correct information later."

Dr. Anderson explained that even when a person makes a mistake when testing themselves, and their mistake is close to the right answer, they're more likely to remember the right answer. 

The team plans to study the brain activity of those who make "near miss" mistakes and those who make mistakes "out in left field." Their goal? To determine how different mistakes affect brain function when a person is trying to remember the correct information.

Learn more about psychology. 


Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.
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