Want The Materials You’ve Learned To Stick? Make Your Own Tests

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

Credit: lil_foot

Restudying materials fools us into thinking we are ready for an exam. It’s like going to a fight expecting to win only to be surprised. 

But, there is a far more superior studying strategy — making your own tests by asking lots of questions. Before we dive into how and why this works, let’s talk about why it is not often used.

First, it is rarely taught in school — we learn the materials in class, do homework, and then cross our fingers that we pass the exam. 

Second, most of us resort to highlighting, note taking, rereading, and reviewing. These are easy to do, but they give us the illusion of competence. 

And finally, it takes a lot of effort to make your own test. 

With those three reasons, asking lots of questions makes it unappealing, but sticking to inferior protocols does not do you any good. 

So why make your own test for maximum learning? 

In the Comparing the effects of generating questions, testing, and restudying on students’ long-term recall in university learning, researchers separated students into three groups:

  1. Question-generating group 
  2. Test-taking group 
  3. Restudying group 

They all participated in a learning session and then took an exam one week after. The question-generating group and the test-taking group outperformed the restudying group. 

Now, taking a test (answering proctor-generated questions), is just as effective as making your own questions, but there is another detail in the study that shows why it is recommended to make your own test, and it has something to do with transfer.  

Transfer is the ability to apply knowledge outside the context of a material. In today’s day in age, this is an extremely valuable skill. Imagine being able to solve a problem no one else in your industry can because you know how to use strategies from other disciplines. 

In the study, students who generated questions were better at transfer compared to their counterparts. See the graph below.

How to Generate Questions For Effective Learning

Step 1: Expose yourself to the material. Go to class, read your book, listen to a lecture, watch a video, etc. 

Step 2: Write information you remember in the form of questions. For example, if you recall from your material that the basic makeup of the nervous system is the neuron, write down, “What is the basic makeup of the nervous system?” I suggest spending 10-15 minutes doing this without looking at your notes to develop active recall (which is also a valuable learning skill). 

Step 3: Create why and how questions. These questions may lead you to more questions which allow you to analyze the material at a deeper level. 

Step 4: Answer your questions. 

Step 5: Ask questions often. Just like learning any skill, asking questions as a beginner produces discomfort. But, the cognitive friction will eventually subside the more you practice. Make it a habit of doing this exercise everytime you learn a material to become proficient at it. 


Making your own exam by asking questions takes time compared to restudying, but not by much. So instead of wasting effort on the latter, make your own exam by asking a lot of questions to make the lessons stick.