The Positive Effects of Pretesting

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an exceptional PD workshop in Boston put on by First Literacy. The presenter was Sarah Lynn, and her topic was Brain-Based ESOL Instructional Techniques. It was a fascinating talk, rich with practical, research-grounded takeaways. I wish I could cover them all, but for now I’ll focus on one of the most surprising techniques she recommended: pretesting, and the counterintuitive effects it can have.

Among some teacherly circles, test can be a four-letter word, a necessary evil, an inevitable bureaucracy, a distraction from the actual learning. And that’s not totally without basis. There are students who want to learn to speak TOEFL rather than English, and we can be forced to spend undue class time preparing for level tests: negative backwash effects are widespread and felt sharply by teachers. And worst among them is the multiple-choice item, right? I myself have bemoaned the use of multiple-choice and conventional assessment. But Lynn makes a shocking claim: pretesting—multiple-choice pretesting, at that—can in fact increase learning.

First, let’s disambiguate: When we say pretesting, there’s another sense of the word that is perhaps more common in adult ed. We often talk about pre- and postassessment: testing students before and after a semester to demonstrate progress or learning gains, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

What we mean, instead, is giving students a brief (2–3 items) quiz on a topic immediately before teaching a lesson on that topic. For instance, before a lesson on the tallest mountains on earth, you might ask two questions:

1. What is the third highest mountain on earth?

a) Kilimanjaro
b) K2
c) Kanchenjunga
d) Denali

2. How tall is Everest?

a) 4,448 m
b) 8,848 m
c) 14,494 m
d) 29,029 m

Again, this is before you’ve taught anything on the topic. Students aren’t combing through their notes or textbooks for their answers; they’re using their own knowledge that they already have on the topic. And therein lies the secret to the technique: pretesting of this kind acts as a form of schema activation, a technique that may be familiar from prereading and prelistening exercises.

The numbers are surprising: Students who are pretested improve their learning by a significant margin (Richland, Kornell, & Kao, 2009). Even more fascinating and counterintuitive: Multiple choice pretests are especially effective (Carey, 2014). Being wrong has a great deal of value: It primes us for the right answer down the line.

Lynn also noted that the effect is more pronounced when students are made to actually commit to a choice, either by raising a hand or voicing their answer, and to explain their reasoning. Don’t just let them think about which answer is right. She emphasized that students will not like you for this the first few times you try it out. They don’t like being asked to answer questions that you haven’t prepared them for. But forge ahead, and eventually they will come to expect and even enjoy the quick pretest. More important, they’ll reap the benefits!


Carey, B. (2014, September 4). Why flunking exams is actually a good thing. New York Times.

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.

from TESOL Blog


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