Improving Learning through Pretesting

A good friend of mine sent me this fascinating New York Times article yesterday on “pretesting”. It seems there is some science that says students learn better when they take an exam on material before they are taught the material. The article offers a variety of potential explanations, but the gist is that the pretest primes their brain for what’s coming later in the semester.

I was immediately inspired. Over the summer I taught the same class I’m teaching now as a small online class. I gave a midterm and final exam on the material and will be writing a new midterm and final exam this fall. I had already been planning to give my current students the old exams and solutions as study aids. Instead of waiting until the week before the midterm, I decided to post the old midterm last night and asked all my students to attempt the exam over the weekend. I sent them the NYT article as motivation.

I would say “We’ll see what happens,” but this year I won’t have a good control group of students who don’t take the pretest. That is, the students who don’t take the pretest will probably also spend less time on traditional studying. If I compare their actual final exam scores to those of the group that chooses to pretest, I won’t know how much the difference will be due to pretesting, and how much will be due to other pre-existing differences between the groups. Unfortunately, good experiments that could tease apart these effects take time to design and run. Hopefully I’ll have time to run a few next year!