Pretesting effect

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The pretesting effect is a phenomenon where even failing to produce the correct answer or testing before learning a material improves test scores relative to regular studying (also called "extended study", where one passively reads a passage).[1][2] This effect justifies generation, especially generation before learning a topic (e.g. meditation, inquiry-based learning).

One weird detail about the Richland paper[2] is that it doesn't talk about what the "test and study" were subjects were thinking as they were studying, e.g. did they recognize that reading passages contained the answers to the questions they were asked?


I think interest in pretesting came about because the testing effect was already known.

Pretesting may also have been called the generation effect in at least one paper.


What could be some mechanisms of this effect?

Mechanism name Description of mechanism Interventions that make use of this mechanism Example
Attention direction The learner might just be cued to pay attention to specific things later on as they go through the learning material. (called mathemagenic behaviors or "learning-generating" behaviors). a.k.a. "affecting learners' looking behaviors". (p. 250)[2] Italicizing/bolding key parts of reading material; memorizing questions; answering pretest questions "For example, Rothkopf and Bisbicos (1967) found that asking participants questions in which the answers were numbers led to better retention of all numerical information in the text, possibly because participants were able to direct their attention to the type of information that was important to learn given the test they would take." (p. 244)[2]
Supporting the organization of knowledge structures by guiding learning helping "as an organizational framework to better structure causal structure and knowledge interpretations" (I can barely make out what this even means..) (p. 250)[2] I think this is specifically meant to not be attention direction. So it's not that you're looking at the right places in the reading material; rather, somehow reading the questions cues up your "organizational framework" in some deeper way. Memorizing questions; answering pretest questions
Deep processing of the questions Memorizing questions; answering pretest questions e.g. from memorizing the questions
Active attempt to recall key information from memory Answering pretest questions
  • Effects of testing itself: ???
    • Effects on learners' "intentional learning practices" (what, specifically?) (p. 248)[2]

I think we can (and should) go one more level and ask, "what is the mechanism by which 'Active attempt to recall key information from memory' helps with learning?" (i.e. we are asking about the mechanism of a particular mechanism, so we are looking for a lower-level mechanism).

Interventions: discovering the distribution of benefits over mechanisms

Basically, the intervention "answering pretest questions" bundles up a lot of benefits that the learner might get. So in order to find out what we are after (how much "active attempt to recall information" helps) we have to perform other interventions that give all the benefits other than "active attempt to recall information", and then subtract the score differences.

Something I'm not sure about: whether "pretesting effect" applies to the benefits of the intervention "answering pretest questions" (over regular study) or the benefits of the mechanism "active attempt to recall information". My current guess is it's the latter.

Intervention Description of intervention Benefits the learner gets (i.e. the mechanism involved in this intervention)
Italicizing/bolding key parts of reading material Attention direction
Providing potential posttest questions to readers before reading the passage Attention direction; organizational framework; deep processing of questions
Memorizing posttest questions Attention direction; organizational framework; deep processing of questions
Answering pretest questions Attention direction; organizational framework; deep processing of questions; active attempt to recall information


A question I have about testing/pretesting effect is something like, assuming testing is useful, how much of your study time should be spent on testing? At one extreme there is something like the Moore method where basically everything is a pretest. At the other end, testing can be restricted to some minimal part of studying (e.g. some pretest questions, then reading through a bunch of material in a normal way, then doing a post-study test).

See also


  1. "The Pre-Testing Effect". The University of Chicago Learning Lab. Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Lindsey E. Richland; Nate Kornell; Liche Sean Kao. "The Pretesting Effect: Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning?" Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 2009, Vol. 15, No. 3, 243–257.