Consider Pre-testing

The recently passed ABA accreditation standard 302 requires schools to report student learning outcomes. A learning outcome has been defined as something a student can do now that she could not do before [or that she can do better than she did before].

One classic way to measure learning is to give pre-tests. When the class begins, students are tested on  key aspects of learning the professor hopes the students will achieve  during the semester. Pre-test results can be compared to end-of-course results to see if, in fact, students’ learning improved. They also can be used by professors to help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses at the outset and to adjust our teaching accordingly. UNM Dean David Herring’s work on measuring cross-case reasoning is an excellent example of how professors can use pre/post tests to measure learning and improve teaching.

While pre-tests may provide learning outcome information, the more intriguing aspect of pre-tests is that they may, themselves, be a learning tool. A recent NY Times article reports studies indicating that pre-tests actually improve final exam performance.

The studies’ authors have multiple theories about why pre-tests improve learning. First, they hypothesize that pre-tests help students identify how they will have to think about and synthesize the material. Students begin the course with that information in hand and it shapes their studying.

Another theory is that we suffer from “fluency illusion” – we believe that we truly grasp the material because we have read and highlighted. A pre-test exposes weaknesses in both knowledge and application.

Additionally, there are biological explanations for why pre-tests improve student learning. The brain works via developing networks of associations. Pre-testing primes the brain to develop associations for the material in the pre-test so that when it is later covered in class, the brain can more easily link the new information to existing information.

In the studies presented in the NY Times article, the pre-tests were particularly helpful with multiple choice test performance, and a key to improved performance was providing students with the correct information shortly after they had taken the pre-tests

The value of pretests may depend upon the type of course and the skills and knowledge tested. Yet the idea has intriguing possibilities. Would a pre-test before we covered hearsay improve student learning of that difficult topic? Would a course pre-test on reading/interpreting statutes result in better student performance of this skill at the end of the semester? Would providing 1Ls with a mock exam and an annotated model answer shortly after they began law school improve overall first year exam performance?

Data from other disciplines suggests pre-testing primes students to learn the material and it provides teachers with data we can use to see if the learning occurred. The value of pre-tests in legal education is an idea that certainly merits further study.

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