Pretesting: The Benefits of Errorful Generation

I cannot imagine my classroom without assessment. In my opinion, a classroom without assessment isn’t an effective classroom. How will a learner (and teacher) understand just what they know and don’t know without an assessment of their learning? This almost always occurs after interaction in some form with the material to be learned; retrieval practice of the information. That makes so much sense to me as a teacher. Get the information in the student’s brain then present opportunities for the student to get that information out of their brain and use it. Sign me up. I’m all about that practice in my classroom.

What about assessing the to-be-learned material before students have interacted with it? Seems almost counterintuitive. But, with pretesting, that is what we do. And while pretesting probably isn’t a foreign concept to most teachers, it also probably isn’t utilized enough. I’ll be honest, it’s one of the first tasks to go when I feel pressed for time during a lesson. Again, it just feels counter to how learning works and I would rather use that time early in a lesson to provide a review of material from a previous lesson(s).

But, maybe I should give more credence to pretesting. Recent research by Dr. Steven Pan and Dr. Faria Sana (Pretesting Versus Posttesting: Comparing the Pedagogical Benefits of Errorful Generation and Retrieval Practice) compared the impact of pretesting and posttesting across five experiments; adjusting variables to test multiple-choice vs. cued recall format, with or without correct answer feedback, and adjusting criterial test times (5 minutes or 48 hours later). A ridiculously short summary of results? Both test types (pre or posttesting) enhanced memory relative to a no-test control, with pretesting yielding higher overall scores. That advantage held across all test formats, whether feedback was provided or not, and at different retention intervals. (1)

Surprised? I was. I definitely would have assumed the benefits of posttesting would outperform pretesting…probably due, in part, to the wealth of research on the posttesting in comparison to pretesting.

Why does pretesting work to increase retention of to-be learned material?

The researchers offer up some theoretical accounts focusing on the generation of errors and/or the subsequent study of correct information to potentially explain pretesting’s positive effects. The following represent theories (1-3) that occur specifically during pretesting:

  1. semantic activation – pretest cues activate cue-related knowledge with which targets are encoded (2) (3)
  2. semantic mediation – errors act as mediators between cues and targets (4)
  3. episodic recollection – the memory of making an error later aids in recollection of the correct answer (5) (6)

Other theories rely on processes occuring after pretesting and include increased curiosity due to errorful generation motivating learners to look for correct answers; essentially, learners having a focus and a goal during subsequent reading or other activities. These accounts can be called test-potentiated learning, meaning testing improves the effectiveness of later activities.

“Unlike posttesting, the benefits of pretesting do not rely on retrieval success during practice testing…a low rate of retrieval success is common. Rather, in order for pretesting effect to manifest, it is crucial that there be an opportunity to learn the correct answers after retrieval attempts are made…” (1)

As a teacher, I am loving these results. It appears pretesting is another arrow to place in the assessment quiver; a strategy to employ somewhat regularly, especially when initially presenting material. But, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. This, like all education research, has its limitations. As the authors discuss, in all five experiments, the researchers presented participants with an expository text to read. Well, obviously, not all classrooms employ the reading of text as the main medium of covering material. Another limitation the researchers mention is the participants were not incentivized to learn the material. No grade or reinforcement for performance. Perhaps the learners would have indicated more learning had there been more tangible incentives to do so. So, while the results appear promising, there is still much work to be done in the area of pretesting.*

From personal experiment, another reason I like using pretesting in my classroom involves the conversation that follows when providing whole-class feedback. For instance, today in class we began a unit on psychological disorders. Pretesting on the topics of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, et cetera always stimulates curiosity. Usually one question from one student leads to others and a nice talk/introduction to major topics from the unit. Then, as we come across the topics while covering the unit in the following days/weeks, students are hearing the information a second time (utilizing the principles of spaced practice).

So, while the results of the present research are quite promising, more work is definitely needed to strengthen these findings when comparing pretesting and posttesting. However, my big takeaway is that testing, pre or post, is great for learning. Both should be employed in the classroom; stimulating thought by the learners and strengthening associations.

Do you use pretesting in class? How do you tailor it to your learners?

What have I missed? What stands out to you from this research?

* I emailed Dr. Pan and asked if any further research in this area has been conducted. He recommended the following article: Pretesting Reduces Mind Wandering and Enhances Learning During Online Lectures by Pan, Schmitt, and Bjork, and pointed me in the direction of Dr. Shana Carpenter‘s website, stating she has conducted research involving either live video or recorded lectures.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

  1. Pan, S. C., & Sana, F. (2021). Pretesting versus posttesting: Comparing the pedagogical benefits of errorful generation and retrieval practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 27(2), 237–257.
  2. Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35(4), 989-998.
  3. Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243-257.
  4. Vaughn, K. E., & Rawson, K. A. (2012). When is guessing incorrectly better than studying for enhancing memory?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19(5), 899-905.
  5. Metcalfe, J., & Huelser, B. J. (2020). Learning from errors is attributable to episodic recollection rather than semantic mediation. Neuropsychologia, 138, 107296.
  6. Butterfield, B., & Metcalfe, J. (2001). Errors committed with high confidence are hypercorrected. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27(6), 1491-1494.

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