The Benefits of “Testing” Depend on the DEFINITION of “Testing.”...

Whenever I want to start a food fight at a faculty meeting (admit it: you know the feeling), I contemplate shouting: “What do we all think about testing?”

Almost certainly, several colleagues will decry the use of discriminatory high-stakes tests that stress and mis-categorize our students.

Others will angrily retort that research into retrieval practice shows that well-designed tests help students learn. Heck, “retrieval practice” yields great benefits because of “the testing effect.”

Still others will heatedly contrast formative assessment with summative assessment.

Like the Goddess of Discord with my Golden Apple, I will have inspired an enduring battle.

Of course, this battle results from confusion about definitions.

Scholars who champion retrieval practice or formative assessment might be said to “favor testing,” but they favor very specific kinds of testing. The testing they champion (probably) looks nothing like the high-stakes test that my first respondents so loathe.

In other words: my colleagues don’t necessarily disagree with each other. Because this one word has different meanings, they’re probably arguing about different topics without realizing it.

Confusion Gets Clearer

Even if I narrow my question to “pre-testing,” I’ve still created many opportunities for confusion.

I might, for instance, “pre-test” my students about the myth of the Golden Apple because I want to know what they already know.

My goal, in other words, isn’t to evaluate them. Instead, I want to align my lessons with their current knowledge. After all, I need one lesson plan for a class which has never heard of Zeus, Aphrodite, or Troy; and a completely different lesson plan for a class that read The Iliad last year.

I’m “pre-testing” as an early step in my own lesson planning.

On the other hand, we have a fascinating research pool suggesting that “pre-testing” itself might help students learn. That is: the act of taking that pretest can improve their ultimate understanding of the material later in the unit.

Amazingly, according to this research pool, these pre-tests benefit students even if they get all the answers wrong. (Of course they get the answers wrong. They haven’t yet done the unit with me.)

For instance, Dr. Lindsay Richland and Co. pre-tested students on a passage about color-blindness. They found that students who took a pretest (and got all the answers wrong) ultimately learned more than students who used that extra time to study the passage. (As I’ve written earlier, I love this study because Richland works SO HARD to disprove her own hypothesis.)

Getting the Specifics JUST RIGHT

So far, we’ve seen that the benefits of testing depend on the definition of testing. While we know that some tests stress and demotivate students, we’ve also got research suggesting that a very specific kind of pre-testing might help students learn.

Of course, we know that psychology research always includes boundary conditionsA teaching technique that works in one set of circumstances might not work in others.

So, for instance, a teaching technique that helps 3rd graders learn might not help college students. Or, a strategy to help students write well might not help them learn to pirouette in dance class.

We know that there will be boundaries for this (very specific kind of) pre-testing. What are they?

As is so often the case, this question has led to complexity and controversy. For instance: several scholars have found that pretesting helps students make new connections only if they already know a little bit about the material.

A study from 2014, however, suggests that pre-testing helps students even if they don’t know anything about the material.

For teachers, this distinction matters.

If students need at least a little prior knowledge for pretesting to be helpful, we will use this technique less often. If, however, they don’t need that prior knowledge, then our decision to limit its use robs them of a chance to learn.

To use this technique correctly, we really need to know the right answer.

Today’s Research: Activating Prior Knowledge

A recent study, led by Dr. Tina Seabrooke, tries to sort through this intricate and important question. In fact, because the details require such nuanced distinctions, she ended up running five different experiments. Only by considering all five together could she and her team reach a conclusion.

Of course, with five different studies underway, Seabrooke’s work has lots of nooks and subtleties to explore. Instead, let me cut to the chase:


Pre-testing will probably help students learn and understand a topic better if they already know something about it.

If students don‘t know anything about the subject, pretests don’t help much.

More specifically: pretests might help them remember some words from the questions, and some words from the answers. But — crucially — pretests won’t help students make connections between the questions and the answers.

Of course, we really want students to make those connections. Any definition of “understanding” a topic will include the ability to answer meaningful questions about it.

You might think about pretesting this way:

Pretests help students activate useful prior knowledge. If they don’t have relevant prior knowledge, then pretests don’t have anything useful to draw upon.

Final Word

Research into “pretesting” is still ongoing, and we’re still learning new and useful information.

I suggest that teachers use this technique from time to time as a way to activate prior knowledge. I wouldn’t require it as part of my daily routine.

And: I would keep my eyes peeled for the next relevant study. We’ve still got lots more to learn on this subject…

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