Failing Tests Is Good for Learning

shutterstock_148662203We’ve all heard some variation of the adage “It will get worse before it gets better.” It turns out to be true with flunking a pretest. Research at UCLA has shown that students perform better on finals when they are given comprehensive pretests on material about which they know virtually nothing on the first day of class … and predictably fail.

The merits of pretesting, a new outcrop of learning science, are linked to how we approach the acquisition of knowledge. The theory posits that if we take a pretest and do poorly but we know the final will include the same material, we look at the course differently—so differently that it can improve overall performance in the class by an average of 10 percent.

Professor Elizabeth Bjork of UCLA used her own psychology students as guinea pigs to test her theory on pretesting. Instead of overwhelming students on the first day with a comprehensive pretest of the entire quarter’s worth of materials, she gave a series of unannounced shorter tests during a few class sessions. Predictably, students performed poorly on the pretests.

However, Bjork delivered the answers to the questions during the next lecture, and this quick feedback is what seemed to lead to better learning. On the final, students scored about 10 percent higher on material they originally did poorly on in pretests but that was covered in the next lecture.

The experiment has several implications. First is that pretesting seems to prime the brain to absorb new information. This may result because students get a taste of what’s to come and that gives them hints about what to focus on as the course progresses. Second is the concept of fluency, or the false impression that we understand or have learned more than we have. Pretesting acts as a wake-up call to show students they are not as fluent as they thought.

Biology may also be at play. Retrieving information from the memory is different than cramming in information the first time. Retrieval requires a network of associations that affect how the information is re-stored. Pretesting—and guessing answers—also reshapes the brain’s networks, which may be linked to the improved performance.

So far it appears that pretesting is not a panacea; it only works in humanities and social science courses that delve into information in the same language we speak. But now, it seems, researchers have found that testing itself may be a key to studying, not the other way around. Tests don’t simply measure; they enrich and alter memory, and therefore, promote learning.



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