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The Case Against Pre-Testing For Online Courses

By Clark Quinn / November 2008

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Too often, online courses begin with pre-tests. Are pre-tests anything more than learner abuse? Under the best of circumstances, quizzes can be tedious and even anxiety-inducing. Putting tests before your content casts a negative shadow over a course before it has even begun. Let's examine the two major arguments for pre-tests and see how they hold up under scrutiny.

Before and After
The first argument for the use of pre-tests is that they help illustrate the different levels of student knowledge before and after the learning experience. However, anyone taking a course should be learning the material, so it should be a given that there will be a change in knowledge. The real goal here should be to allow learners to demonstrate mastery of new skills.

So instead of pre-tests, I suggest the following steps:

  • Document that there are people who need to learn the material (or why develop it?).
  • Define learning objectives that will address why people need to learn the material. Include specific criteria that demonstrate mastery.
  • Build the final assessment (or post-test) to demonstrate that learning objectives have been met at a suitable performance level.
  • Design your content to meet the learning objective, by aligning the learning to ensure learners will pass the assessment.
  • Measure the final outcomes from the assessment to show that learners are achieving the objectives.
In short, what's important is not that learners can do more than they could before, but that they can now do what they need to do. This is criterion-referenced performance. Given this goal, why require a pre-test for every course?

Learner Preparation
The second argument in favor of pre-tests is that they help the learner prepare for the coming learning experience. This is a little more plausible than argument number one: We know that helping learners be prepared both cognitively (by activating relevant knowledge), and motivationally (through visceral understanding of why this learning is important) leads to better outcomes. Pre-tests can activate relevant knowledge. However, the experience won't be motivational; on the contrary, knowing that every course will start with a quiz is likely to drive students away. Using problem-based learning will help you address the emotional component as well. But that's not a pre-test, that's a scenario, and now we're talking about the benefits of games, which is another topic.

Better ways to address the motivational side include dramatically or humorously exaggerating the consequences of not having the knowledge. Similarly, situating the learning in context can prepare the learner cognitively. And the experience, done right, is more interesting than a pre-test and consequently more effective.

Let's be honest: Would learners would rather watch a video, read a story (or a comic), or take a quiz? Trying to preparing learners through a quiz-particularly when they are not expected to know the information at this point -leads to frustration, boredom, and/or irritation. If we start talking about making assessments more aligned to workplace practice, and writing them as mini-scenarios, we have moved into a more interesting discussion. But the reality is that most pre-tests are just rote knowledge tests.

The Value of Pre-tests
There is one role for pre-tests, and that is in the realm of allowing students to test out of a course. Learners should be allowed to skip the content they already know if they can demonstrate competency. This is to the great benefit of the learner. But when pre-testing is used to demonstrate mastery for this purpose, it should be an option, not a requirement. So please, don't abuse your learners. Give pre-tests only to allow the learner to test-out of specific material. And don't give in to de facto standards that dictate every course start with a pre-test. Use assessment properly, to demonstrate mastery.


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