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The Power of Pretesting: Why & How to Implement Low-Stakes Tests

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(Image credit: Mohamed Hassan)

Pretesting outperformed post-testing in a recent study of college students.

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. 

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. 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, the benefit of pretesting is not as widely understood as it could be, Pan says. And even teachers that implement pretesting often do so to gauge student knowledge on a subject not necessarily to promote student learning. 

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.

“Pre-testing right now is not a very well-known technique and not a very widely used technique,” Pan says. 

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 is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, 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.