Pretesting: How wrong answers lead to right ones
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Pretesting: How wrong answers lead to right ones

Most trainers end a learning experience with some sort of assessment. What about starting with one?

According to recent research, pretesting, or “erroneous guessing,” is a surprising way to boost knowledge retention. Even though learners guess wrong – which makes perfect sense since they haven’t learned the material yet – pretesting improves learners’ memories of the right answers.

Psychologists have only recently uncovered the full power of this technique. But based upon the results so far, learners who flunk at the beginning are more likely to succeed in the end.

The research

Two recent studies out of UCLA demonstrate how pretesting increases retention.

In the first study, participants were asked to memorize word pairs – for example, “olive” and “branch.” Group One, the control, was given two brief opportunities to study each word pair.

Group Two was given the first word of each pair and told to guess what the second word could be. They were, of course, dead wrong nearly every single time. After swinging and missing, they were given the correct word to complete the pair and a few seconds to memorize it.

After this initial learning phase, both groups took a test. Members of Group Two, who actually spent less time studying the correct answers, were able to remember 34% more word pairs than members of the control group.

In the second study, researchers decided to put pretesting to the test in the real world – namely, an intro to psychology course. They began some classes with an assessment – a multiple-choice quiz on the material students were about to learn. In other classes, they skipped the pretest and went straight to the lecture.

As you might expect, the students bombed the pretests. But on the final exam, students scored 10 percent higher on the pretested material.

What’s going on?

First off, pretesting clues learners in on what’s important. The pretest gives learners a sneak peek at what’s to come – the concepts, the terminology – before they learn the lesson. It reveals what they need to pay attention to.

Pretests also expose what trainees don’t know. After flunking a pretest, learners are relieved of any illusions that the material is easy or that they know it already. When trainees are overconfident, they tend to pay less attention and dedicate less effort to the learning process.

On a deeper level, psychologists think that pretesting primes the brain for the upcoming learning experience. It introduces the unfamiliar concepts into memory – but with a question mark at the end. When the learner receives the right answer moments later, the question mark is filled in by the correct answer and embedded into memory. Priming lays the foundation for building a stronger memory of the content, improving long-term recall.


Here are some recommendations for applying the research in your training program.

Start with a pretest. Just as in the research, give learners a quiz at the start of a learning experience. It doesn’t have to be onerous, just a few multiple-choice questions. If you’re worried about trainees’ self-esteem, assure them that their grade won’t count – but make sure they take the quiz seriously.

Begin with a writing exercise. Ask learners to write about their existing knowledge on the topic they’re about to learn. This will prime them for the material to come, reveal their knowledge gaps, and help them evaluate their current knowledge, which likely can be improved.

Use pre-questioning. If you’re doing classroom or in-person training and don’t want to start with a quiz, ask some probing questions to kick off the session. Get learners thinking about the topic you’re about to discuss and activate their curiosity and prior knowledge. Chances are they’ll get the questions wrong and reveal their inexperience with the material – and that’s exactly what you want.

Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York, NY: Random House.

Yan, V. X. (2014). Why does guessing incorrectly enhance, rather than impair, retention? Memory and Cognition, 42(8), 1373-1383.

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