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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pretest Instead of Retest

From Dean's Education Blog:

Pretesting: the Manageable Retesting Alternative

Like many other teachers in the early 1990's, I was impressed by the promise of Outcome-Based Education or OBE. OBE was the new and improved version of mastery learning that stressed that all students can learn and that learning rather than content coverage should drive the pace of classroom instruction. Although I did, and still do, agree with many of the principles of OBE, I eventually became very disillusioned with the concept of student retesting.

Retesting is one of the key components of OBE. If students didn't master learning outcomes on a unit test, they were allowed to relearn those specific outcomes in a different way and then retest on those components until they had mastered them. This was where I found my first concern with retesting: the enormous amount of teacher time spent creating retests and relearning packages specifically tailored for individuals. My second concern was that my students weren't demonstrating the same gains in achievement as students in the literature were.

In fact, my students--as well-intentioned as most of them were--having diligently completed their relearning packages, showed up to the retest seemingly hoping that it was an easier version of the original. Generally, their results showed that they were not much better prepared for the retest than they were for the original test and very few significantly increased their score on the non-mastered concepts. I was demoralized and convinced that I was working harder at this than they were. As a result, over time, I largely abandoned the practice of retesting.

However, I wasn't quite ready to give up completely on OBE, I started offering pretests to students as opposed to retests.  I only had to create one really good pre-test per unit. Since I considered pretests as a type of formative assessment, they could be reused year after year and students could rewrite them as a review at any time. The critical components were that pretests be administered to students far enough in advance of the unit test to allow them time for reflection and review and that the students be provided with mastery reports by learning outcome based on their pretest performance.

The information contained in the mastery reports allowed the students to become metacognitive connoisseurs of their learning. Students began to come in for help much more often than they had prior to the implementation of pretesting, and accompanied by their mastery reports the students were much more aware of what they understood and didn't understand when asking for help.  Thanks to the information contained in the mastery reports, the students now knew where their learning gaps were. For example in biology class, students would point out that they had mastered the outcomes involving DNA replication but that they still needed some help with the translation steps of protein synthesis. These after school and in-class help sessions became very purposeful and focused.

The mastery reports produced a change in my instruction as well. Because the testing software could produce a mastery report summary by class, I could tailor my instructional and/or review activities to address the areas that most students were struggling with. The mastery reports took the guesswork out of lesson planning. I knew from these reports and my interactions with the students what they did and didn't understand and could revise my teaching accordingly.

Although pretests can be paper-based, posting them online increases student access and once again decreases teacher workload: no more standing in line at the photocopier and, depending on the type of question, no marking! Just make sure your online testing application is able to generate mastery reports for the students.

So what's the downside? It's time consuming to organize your test banks into valid questions grouped by learning outcome. However, whether you're pretesting or not, this level of organization helps you to create good tests quickly. And the opportunity to create and/or reorganize a test bank in such a way is a good collaborative activity for teachers in the same subject area. In order to create online pretests you need a sophisticated testing application. The one that I am most familiar with is LXR-Test. Although powerful, LXR is Windows only, not very user-friendly and expensive. Additionally, if you want online tests scored automatically, a feature that benefits students by providing instantaneous results, you are limited to multiple choice, matching and short answer questions. Although you may create and incorporate "essay" questions, they must be marked by hand and don't provide the instant results that are so beneficial to students.

I believe that pretesting students and providing them with mastery reports by learning outcome is a beneficial, practical, and efficient strategy that not only increases their achievement, but also helps them learn about learning. In addition the mastery reports also help teachers focus instructional time on the concepts that students need the most help with.

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