It’s Counterintuitive But Pretesting Consistently Works, Says Research

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Pretesting, an education strategy in which teachers provide no-stakes quizzes to students before they’ve learned a topic, is earning high marks in cognitive research. 

During one study, a group of college students who took pretests before learning outperformed a separate group who only took post-tests. For the study, researchers conducted five experiments with 1,573 students and found that students who received a pre-lesson test or post-lesson test learned more than those that did not, and that those who received a pretest scored the highest on subsequent tests.

The study was published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied and provides evidence in support of educators who give pretests, or practice questions, prior to the lesson. 

“Pretesting is not just as good – which, that in and of itself, is kind of surprising – but it's potentially even better than a technique that is much more established, which is taking practice tests after learning has occurred,” says Steven C. Pan, the lead author of the study and director of the Learning Sciences Laboratory at the National University of Singapore. 

Despite the benefits discovered in this and other recent studies, pretesting remains underutilized, Pan says. One reason that it isn’t more widely adopted is that students have a hard time believing that testing themselves on material they don’t know can help them. “The counterintuitive nature of pretesting is precisely why it is overlooked as a way to improve learning,” Pan says. 

Here’s what you need to know about pretesting and how these preconceptions about it can be overcome. 

Evidence In Support of Pretesting  

Pan has also been involved with other recent studies that demonstrate the potential positive outcomes of pretesting, also known as errorful generation. Pan was the lead author on a comprehensive review of existing research into pretesting. The review was published in September and found that “pretesting can benefit learning if there is an opportunity to study the correct answers afterward,” and “this prequestioning effect or pretesting effect has been successfully demonstrated with a variety of learning materials.”  

For one study, undergraduate students viewed an online lecture that was accompanied by pretesting or a control algebra problem-solving activity. Pretesting led to significantly less mind wandering and better final test performance than the control activity. 

Despite mounting evidence of its efficacy, pretesting remains largely overlooked. “Pretesting is still quite unknown, and even when teachers give questions in advance of a more formal lesson, they usually do so for diagnostic purposes rather than as a way to improve learning because that's the traditional use of pretests,” Pan says. 

For another paper, Pan and his colleagues conducted surveys of undergraduate students and instructors at three public universities in North America. They found that understanding of the potential for pretests was lacking. Many students were averse to making errors during learning and although many instructors welcomed the concept, few provided students with resources that facilitate errorful generation.

Implementing Pretesting in the Classroom  

Pan encourages educators to consider incorporating low- or no-stakes pretests into their classes. 

“It's a learning strategy that shows a lot of promise,” he says. “Instructors can use it with little fear that will have negative consequences and it will quite possibly have very positive consequences for student learning.” 

He adds, “It's a way to introduce a topic, it's a way to get students to potentially pay closer attention to a lesson.” 

Another advantage is that it’s a pedagogical strategy that is easy to implement, Pan says. A multitude of edtech tools are available for creating and sharing questions, from Google Forms to Quizizz and Quizlet to the quiz function that comes built into most learning management systems. Or you can go as low-tech as a pen and paper, handing out tests, or just putting the questions on the board and asking students to write out answers. 

Pretests Shouldn’t Be Stressful  

To add low-stakes pretests without adding stress, Pan advises letting students know that these tests are not something to worry about. “If the instructor has a very positive, encouraging attitude, they should say, ‘This is just an exercise related to the course material. Don't worry about failing or answering all these questions wrong. That's fine because you will learn the correct information afterward.’” 

Even though proponents of the strategy usually make such efforts, sometimes the conversation around pretesting gets incorrectly looped in with debates around high-stakes year-end testing and standardized tests, which is an entirely different conversation. 

“There are some statements out there that some educators make like, ‘Tests do not teach,’” he says. “That's not true, you actually learn a lot from tests. Tests actually change one's knowledge and understanding. Every time you recall information, or you try to generate the answer to a test question that in and of itself, influences learning.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.