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Should You Test Students on Material Not Taught To Them?

Imagine that you are a teacher in grade 7. You step into the classroom to start teaching ‘Heat.’ You decide to start the class by taking a test. Should you test children on:

Option 1: Previous understanding of Heat

Option 2: The topics in Heat that you are going to teach (you have not even taught these topics yet!)

Think, before you read on.

While most teachers would like to choose Option 1, i.e. check the previous understanding, a research conducted by Thomas Berry, Associate Professor of Finance at DePaul University, Chicago, showed results that would surprise many teachers. His study concludes that there are a lot of benefits to testing students on the material that they have not even taught yet. 

What Does Research Say?

The test taken before teaching a topic can be called a pre-learning test. Typically, teachers use pre-tests to assess the understanding of topics taught in the previous grades. 

However, you can use a pre-test to assess students on the material you have not taught them! This approach may appear counterintuitive but this research from DePaul University will make you think about tests again. We will call such tests as pre-learning tests in this article.

Thomas Berry researched the impact of pre-learning tests on the material teachers hadn’t covered. He expected the students to not know these topics already. After all, he had taught these topics to his students.

At the end of his research, he learned that a pre-test could serve the following purposes:

A) Give students an indication of the material that will be covered and the depth of understanding required. This could serve as a ‘roadmap’ for the topic

B) The students get primed (more prepared) to learn the topic even if they make a lot of mistakes

How Did He Conduct the Research?

Berry selected students from the undergraduate introductory corporate finance course for this study. He separated the students into two groups: (A) a pre-learning test group to whom a pre-learning test was given before covering material and (B) a control group that didn’t get any pre-learning test

He divided the whole course material into eight sections, e.g., time value of money, risk and return, etc. A test was designed for each section; each test contained some multiple-choice questions and open-ended problems. A twenty-point scale was used for these tests.

The instructor would give a very brief introduction to the topic in the section before presenting the pre-learning test questions. They would begin the lecture after collecting the responses for the pre-learning test. 

The researcher made sure to avoid jargon and to include a few questions that most students could answer correctly. While the pre-learning test score was not used to evaluate the students’ course grades, these scores were recorded. 

At the end of a particular topic, a graded quiz (i.e., counting toward their course grade) was administered to both the groups. While different from the pre-learning test, it was similar in terms of the types of problems and material covered. This quiz was also on a twenty-point scale. 

What were the results?

The scores of the two groups were evaluated as follows:

1. The pre-learning test score and end-of-the-topic graded quiz score for the pre-learning test group are presented in Table 1:

The significant rise in scores between the pre-learning tests and the end of the topic quizzes was expected. The students were expected to know better after a topic was taught. The interesting analysis would be: How did the pre-learning test students perform vis-a-vis students of the control group?

2. Let us compare the end of the topic graded quiz score for the pre-learning test and control groups (with no pre-learning test questions). It looked something like the data in Table 2:

The results show that the students tested with a pre-learning test performed better on an average in comparison to the students who learned with the standard pedagogy (with one exception). This was based on t-tests for differences in mean. However, these comparisons may be biased since it is possible that (a) Pre-learning test may give students a better idea about the expected questions in the graded quiz, (b) the instructor in the pre-learning test group may prepare children for the graded quiz by asking them similar questions as the pre-learning test.

What Did He Learn?

According to Berry, students differ in their background knowledge, preparation, and levels of understanding of the material. Each of them is different in their majors, work experience, and backgrounds.

Berry concluded that the pre-learning test methodology helps students master the material better than standard methods. The pre-learning tests help the instructor understand how much students know the topic and how understanding varies from student to student. Teachers can use this knowledge to adjust their presentations. The test also primes the students to learn the upcoming material better.

On the other hand, when teachers conduct classes merely based on class responses, some students can have a better understanding of the topic than others. Teachers may mistake this for the knowledge of the whole group. 

How can pre-learning tests be useful for schools?

The findings by Berry can be applied by school teachers as well. These are some possible benefits of testing children on material that teachers have not even taught them:

1. You can get children interested in your lesson. Even if children make mistakes, they look forward to knowing the answers they know will be found in teaching. The catch here is to ask good questions so that children are more curious to know the answers.

2.. Save time. You may assume you have to start the topic from 0. But a pre-learning test may reveal that students know more than you think. You can use the pre-learning test result to teach stuff that children are already aware of. 

Few Suggestions for Better Learning With Pre-learning tests

a. You must remind the students that any score above zero on pre-learning tests means they know the material. Students who take this test may get demoralized upon scoring low. You can help them realize that it is expected as the material has not been covered yet.

b. Students may not take pre-learning tests seriously as they are not graded. They may fill the answers out to get over with the test. You can highlight that the pre-learning test is designed to help their actual scores and make them efficient. 

c. The pre-learning test method can be time-consuming. A certain amount of class time must go into pre-tests and grading. You can solve this problem easily by designing a pre-learning test with multiple-choice questions. 

d. Another solution to run pre-learning tests without using class time is to move pre-tests to an online format. Such testing systems can also create motivation to complete the pre-learning tests by offering nominal points for completion (regardless of the score). 

Note: Better the Questions, Better The Test 

It is important to remember that a test is merely a set of questions. A pre-learning test will be as good as the questions. As a teacher, you might be thinking: I have not even taught children yet; how can I ask good questions?

Go ahead and ask anyway. You will be surprised to see that children know more than you think. You can check out Open Door’s Thinking Classroom and Thinking Assessments programs. Each of these programs has good questions at its core.

You can read the full paper here:

How can you use the Pre-learning test method to learn better?

Let us say you are reading a book or a new paragraph. How can you learn the material better by using the Pre-learning method? It may not be easy to ask someone to design questions that test you. But you can test yourself. How?

Take a blank paper. Write down what you know about the book/paragraph on the blank paper. Take your time to jot down all known information on that paper. Once you are done reading, add information to that page. Why would this method make you learn better?

When you start with a blank page, you are forced to search your memory. You force yourself to think. It also primes your brain and makes it more ready to learn.

In the same manner, every topic that teachers are going to teach to children is like a blank page. By testing children, teachers would not only help children better but also help them see the advantages of pre-learning test so that they can start testing themselves when they grow up.


Manish Dubey

Manish is a Business Associate at Open Door. He believes in the transformative power of education and thinks that every teacher can be a role model for children.

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