Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

28 August 2008

Pre-tests = learner abuse*

Clark @ 6:33 AM

I thought I’d gone off about pre-tests here before, but apparently not (at least I can’t find it).  So let me do it now.  Pre-tests are learner-abusive. Period.  *OK, with one (rare) caveat…

First, let’s agree that quizzes are usually not an enjoyable experience.  Except when the outcome doesn’t matter, and provides valuable information (e.g. the ‘Cozmo quiz’ where you learn things about yourself).  However, when you don’t know the answers (by definition, or you wouldn’t need it), it’s just a tedious process in most cases.

There are two major arguments for pre-tests, which I’ll argue against.  One is that it helps the learner understand what’s coming, serving as an advance organizer, activating relevant knowledge. Yes, it will do that.  However, there are much less cruel ways to do it, such as dramatically or humorously exaggerating the consequences of not having the knowledge, drilling down from the larger context, etc.  Doing it through a random quiz, particularly when you’re not already expected to know the information, just leads to frustration and/or boredom.

The other reason used to justify pre-tests is to show the delta from before and after the learning experience.  This is also wrong, since you shouldn’t even be developing the learning unless you already know they don’t know the material.  Consequently, the only thing you should need to demonstrate is that they know can achieve your objectives. And beyond, that it leads to improved performance and better outcomes.

The only qualification to this is when the pre-assessment is used to allow the student to test-out. That is, by passing a pre-assessment, they can skip material they already know.  Even then, it might be a preference, rather than required.

So, please, don’t abuse your learners, and don’t give pre-tests unless it allows the learner to test-out of the learning (and only if they want to).


  1. Thank you! I’ve wanted to pose this same rant to my coworkers but it seems to be such a sacred cow.
    (I prefer a slightly different bovine moniker.) You’ve given me some great arguments.
    After I get fired, I’ll post more about how everyone responds. :-)

    Comment by Eric Wilbanks — 28 August 2008 @ 11:52 AM

  2. Kia ora Clark!

    Test-out. I like it. I didn’t know that term. But we use the technique with our so-called diagnostics, and they work.

    Students (y12 Chemistry) often opt in to doing the parts of the course they have the option to test-out with. It works, and no student feels under any pressure to ‘do’ stuff they don’t want to.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

    Comment by Ken Allan — 29 August 2008 @ 2:53 AM

  3. We use the test out concept quite a bit in my organization – especially for the annual re-orientation courses. The staff find little value in the courses, but they are required to take them so we can remain in compliance with our accrediting agency. By allowing them to test out of the courses, we reduce the amount of time employees must spend each year taking the re-orientation courses. One employee commented that he is trying to set the speed record for completing the courses in the least amount of time. This is fine to me because it proves what we really need to know: does the employee know what our guidelines require as a baseline of minimal knowledge? If they pass the pre-test, then yes.

    Of course it all means nothing if the pre-test is poorly constructed! I’m assuming, Clark, that you are also assuming we are all constructing “good” pre-tests. I do remember taking an entire course in my university studies dedicated to constructing tests (I think it was called “Measures and Evaluations” or something to that effect).

    Why would we ever want to waste our users’ time forcing them to take a course in which they can already demonstrate competence? It is a waste of business resources and it is insulting to the users. What kind of message does it send when an organization doesn’t mind wasting their employees’ time?

    You say pre-tests are learner abuse. I agree and say there are many other things we do in the name of training or education which equate to learner abuse as well. Thanks Clark!

    Comment by Richard — 29 August 2008 @ 7:09 PM

  4. Test out is the way to go for those mandatory annual re-orientation courses. Why waste people’s time forcing them to take a course when they can prove mastery or competence? I hadn’t thought about the points you make in your arguments for a while. Your point #1 I may take up issue with, because there has been value for me to take a pre-test when I was studying a course for IT certifications – the pre-test showed me whether I really needed to spend more time with a certain topic or move on to another. I’m not sure if you’d say that was really an “advance organizer” though. Your point #2 is exactly the opposite of what was drilled into my head at university, but I think I agree with you on this one… and it leads right into your point about testing out of a course. Very nice.

    I blogged about testing out of courses here: http://techlearnology.blogspot.com/2008/08/heres-why-unlocking-your-course.html

    Comment by Richard — 29 August 2008 @ 7:58 PM

  5. Great comments (hope you kept your job, Eric!). Ken, glad to hear you’re making it available to kids as well, and interested to see them taking it anyway. Not too surprised, really.

    And, yes, Richard, you’re right, I am assuming well-constructed tests, this all falls by the way-side if it’s not. Hadn’t thought about re=certifications, but pre-tests to test out make sense, and of course you could *choose* to use it as you suggest. I’ll just suggest that too many systems don’t have the capability to support pre-tests for testing-out.

    Comment by Clark — 30 August 2008 @ 6:34 AM

  6. Great post, and also great comments.

    I would be thrilled if you wrote about this for eLearn Magazine. Care to expand upon your thoughts?

    Comment by Lisa Neal Gualtieri — 31 August 2008 @ 4:56 PM

  7. […] Pre-tests = learner abuse* | Learnlets |Clark Quinn | 28 August 2008 Share and Enjoy: […]

    Pingback by Death by pre-test | Workplace Learning Today — 1 September 2008 @ 5:02 AM

  8. I am in the nonprofit sector. I have used pre- and post-testing to be able to demonstrate that knowledge was gained. This data (and analysis of it) is useful for grant applications to get funding to develop more coursework. I am open to any other suggestions on how to demonstrate learning – any suggestions? Thanks!

    Comment by Valerie Sheppard — 2 September 2008 @ 7:50 AM

  9. Valerie, I’ll be writing a slightly longer version for eLearn Mag, and hope to cover this, but briefly:

    *Document the need first: that is, that this learning is needed (or why develop it?).
    *Define an objective (ala Mager) that will address it. Include specific criteria that demonstrates they know it, and build the final assessment.
    *Design your learning to achieve the outcome; align the learning to ensure they’ll pass the assessment.
    *Measure the outcome, and show that they achieve the assessment once the learning’s complete.

    It’s better than a pre-post test, since it’s criterion-referenced, not a mere increment (without knowing that the post-performance is at the necessary level). If you’ve got the need, and they’re passing a test to criteria, you’ve documentation for your grant. And no one’s had to take a pre-test for every course. Hope this helps. If you need more assistance, contact me directly.

    Comment by Clark — 2 September 2008 @ 8:20 AM

  10. […] Back in August of this year, Clark Quinn wrote the following in his blog, “Pre-tests are learner-abusive. Period.” You can read the whole entry here. […]

    Pingback by TechnicalTrainer.org » Blog Archive » Did he really say that? — 6 December 2008 @ 5:14 PM

  11. Pre/post testing is useful for research purposes to demonstrate what individual students learned, but that doesn’t mean it should be used in regular classroom settings all the time. I started with just post-tests to show what students still didn’t know after instruction, then I did research tutoring sessions with pre and post tests to show what they gained, and to see differences in the kinds of gains between for example students who knew more or less on the pre-test.

    From my experience with college students at least they have had no problem with a pre-test (or a post-test for that matter) as long as it isn’t too long. They like seeing what they know or don’t know, and want to know their scores and the answers to the questions.

    Comment by Doug Holton — 30 July 2009 @ 4:18 PM

  12. Doug, for research, maybe. But in practice, you shouldn’t be offering the learning unless you know they need it, and you should be checking to see that they *can* do what they need now, *not* what the delta is. What if they’ve improved but still can’t do the task? Testing afterwards to see what’s still missing, if anything, makes sense as a formative test on the learning, but pre-tests for the learners unless they can ‘test out’ still seems to be cruel.

    Comment by Clark — 30 July 2009 @ 4:57 PM

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