Pretests are well known to be one of the most powerful research based formative assessment strategies an educator can use as a tool to push student learning forward. In fact I just did a single Google search on the subject of the impact of pretesting on student learning resulting in over 6 million records in 3 tenths of a second. Education experts agree that using pretests prior to learning can impact student learning in a least 2 ways. Pretests:
1- Prime the learner’s brain for the learning about to occur activating any prior or related knowledge, and
2- Allow the instructor to see what students already know, and where there are weaknesses in order to tailor the instruction to fit the learner.
Clearly from the number of Google results on this topic, there are plenty of resources that you could read up on – some admittedly more reliable than others. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time rehashing what other’s have already said. I do want to share another view on why we should pretest, that I think may be the most convincing of all. I came upon this reason in a moment of serendipitous realization as a result of a conversation with a middle school student this week.
One of the teachers at my school requires her science students to once a week talk through their notes with an adult at home and then have the adult write a short summary of what the student told them, sign it, and then return it to school as their weekly homework. The goal is to get students talking about what they are learning in class with their family while engaging in some review of the content. There are few of her students who can’t or won’t get this done with adults at home, so I assist at school by being the adult the student can do their notes talk with.
This week the young lady I was working with told me all sorts of facts her class had studied about our solar system. She told me about the sun centered system vs Earth centered, inner and outer planet characteristics, moons, orbits, rotation vs revolution, phases of the moon, the effects of the Earth’s movement on day, night, and seasons, the layers of the sun, lifecycle of stars and what that means for our sun, and so on. I was impressed. Her notebook was organized and neat, all the work was complete. She seemed like a great student. Once she had finished going through her notes my innocent (I thought) comment was, “Wow, you have learned a lot in class!”
Her response left me speechless at first. “Not really,” she said. “We learned all this stuff last year and the year before. None of this was really new. Actually I get bored a lot. But then when kids in my class are bored because of that and just draw or read to entertain ourselves, the teacher just yells at us”
I processed what she was saying for a minute. “So you seem really interested in this topic though. What if the teacher had figured out before the unit that you knew these things already so decided to teach you some other more in depth information about the same topics?”
“That would have been great! I wouldn’t be bored and would actually learn something then instead of wasting time doing something I’ve already done before. I mean, I realized the other day that I had watched the same video clip that the teacher showed us in class last year!”
To me this conversation says it all about why we should pretest. Surely we can be more respectful of learner’s time than just recycling the same content multiple years in a row. The only way we can ever expect to help students achieve growth is through continually pushing on to something new. The absolute only way to be sure to plan appropriately for what students need is to pretest first. Teaching without pretesting first is like a doctor writing the same prescription to every patient without first checking what their symptoms are… that just doesn’t make sense.
So, my bottom line here is…. if you don’t use pretests to assist in planning your instruction because of the sound pedagogy behind it, then respect your learners- they really do want to learn, so give them a chance to by seeing what they already know so you don’t waste their time with reruns!