Guessing Helps You Learn


When you’re doing homework for a class and you don’t know an answer, the first thing you may do is look up the answer. Although getting the right answer down will result in a better grade, new studies have shown that guessing the answer first helps you learn the right one.

Guessing, even wrongly, is thought to activate webs of knowledge, which leads to richer encoding of the correct answer. “Always first generate the answers for yourself,” says psychologist Arnold Glass, who currently works at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “It will help you do better on the exam,” notes. Glass, one of the new study’s authors. If you just copy and paste the right answer, you´ll be less likely to remember it. Glass discovered this from analyzing homework and the grades on tests that he gave college students who took his courses from 2008 to 2017. Glass gives his students a series of quiz-style online homework assignments. The day before a lesson, students answer homework questions about the upcoming material. They answer similar questions in class a week later and again on the exam. It may sound like a lot of repetition, but just reading material does not aid in learning. Testing yourself again and again will result in better performance.

In a study done by researchers Andrée-Ann Cyr and Nicole Anderson, they instructed 32 young adults to recall pairs of related words under two conditions. In the first condition, participants were asked to simply memorize the word pairings then recall them after a 10-minute break. In the second condition, participants were shown the first word, then were asked to guess what the second word could be. Researchers told participants whether their guess was close to the answer or a complete miss, then asked participants to recall the pairings after a 10-minute break. The researchers found that participants who didn’t make any guesses had a recall rate of 54%. But participants who guessed had a 65% recall rate when their initial guess was a complete miss, and a recall rate of 79% when their initial guess was close to correct.

“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,” explains Anderson. “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.” Their study suggests that people who just memorize the answer are less likely to remember the correct answer. So, the next time you´re stuck on an answer while doing homework, instead of just looking it up try guessing!

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