The value of the pretest

Every semester for the past three years, I have begun my Anthropology 105 course with a “concept inventory” quiz, otherwise known as a pretest. My students are coming in from a broad range of backgrounds, especially with variation in how long ago they had high school biology and what level of biology they attained in previous work. The pretest gives me valuable information about how prepared they are for the course. Because the pretest includes several topics that we will cover in biological anthropology, as opposed to stock high school biology, it gives the students an early appreciation of how the subject matter of my course may differ from their previous training. And comparison with a post-test after the course gives a direct assessment of what they learn during the semester.

Now, Benedict Carey in the New York Times reports on research that shows pretesting before a course begins can improve learning throughout the course: “Why flunking exams is actually a good thing”.

This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-­science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.
That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

The bottom line is that pretesting can help to frame subsequent learning activities for students, so that they are more aware of they don’t know. The pretest also makes them more attentive to how the topics of the course can fit together to solve problems.

I have consistently been surprised by the pretesting I have done in my course. The students really invest energy into their answers, even though in my course they will receive full credit for any attempt, even simply writing “I don’t know”. They do want to show off their knowledge.

Meanwhile, the results have shown me that many students come in with the stock misconceptions of evolutionary theory that are well known in the education literature. We do our best in the course to remove misconceptions.