Exams Measure What We know, But They’re Also the Best Way to Learn – Article Summary

Test As Soon As Possible

  • Groups who took pop quizzes soon after reading a passage did much better than those who took their first pop quiz two weeks later. The testing effect is now well established and helps us understand memory itself. Retrieving a fact alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize that knowledge in our brain. If tests are more effective sooner that later, a first-day final would be as far as you could go. This would probably be overwhelming for most students and courses, but a short pretest with basic material is a good place to start. (Doug: When I taught chemistry I gave a pretest composed of concepts from previous courses that would be used in my course.) Bjork found that students did better on final exam questions that were covered on her initial pretest.

More Key Concepts

  • Another important thing is that students should get the answers to pretest questions as soon as possible. Teachers using lectures or even shorter TED Talks style presentations should give pretest questions related to what they want students to know for the final. Pretesting serves to prime the brain, predisposing it to absorb new information. Test questions should force the kind of hierarchical critical thinking that you are looking for. Even getting wrong answers on practice test items seems to improve subsequent study, and the wrong answers expose our false impression of what we know. In a sense, pretesting operates as a false sense of fluency vaccine.


  • Retrieving or remembering is a different mental act than straight studying. Guessing is an even different act, which also reshapes our mental network by embedding unfamiliar concepts.
  • Pretesting is certainly limited for some courses. If you are just starting a course in something like Arabic or Chinese, a pretest is probably worth very little. In order to be useful, there does have to be some familiar language to scaffold learning. Benedict sees humanities and social science courses as prime examples where unfamiliar concepts can be embedded in familiar language.
  • In a day when standardized testing is drawing a great deal of fire, and “teaching to the test” is seen a a way to limit learning, pretesting offers a different approach. When the test is an introduction to what the students should learn rather than a final judgement on what they did not, the new goal is “learning to understand the pretest.” Be sure to share this will principals and teachers you know.
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