Where Do We Start?

The Power of Pre-testing

The opening of a new semester, full of promise and potential, may not seem like the best moment to give a test…  but it’s worth taking time in the first week of class to gather some baseline data on what your students already know or can do.

Richland, Kornell, and Kao (2009) and Little and Bjork (2011) found that pre-testing, before instruction, enhanced student retention of new material. Although students didn’t (of course) perform well on a test covering completely new material, a pre-test seemed to pique their curiosity and focus their attention in later instruction.

Establishing a baseline makes sense for course design—not just because it allows us to better gauge our own effectiveness (how much change do we actually create?) We can’t build good learning experiences without an accurate assessment of students’ prior knowledge. Students will learn more when you have a bead on what they really know, rather than what they ought to know. You’ll be able to tweak lessons and assignments to beef up their skills, to activate their prior learning, and to help them make the right connections.

An exam isn’t the most inspiring welcome, of course, so it’s important to assure students that they won’t be graded on this initial performance: it can even be anonymous. (It also doesn’t matter that add/drop is underway, since you’ll still get a good sense of the group). And you don’t actually have to administer a quiz or test; there are plenty of other, low-stakes methods for assessing your students’ familiarity with the concepts they need and the knowledge they’ll acquire. You might try a concept inventory, a self-assessment probe, diagnostic writing, etc.

Let us know if you’d like help or suggestions. Best wishes for a productive start to the new semester!