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24 August 2010

Mail Time: Pretests and the level of physics you teach

Jason Buell is a middle school teacher in San Jose, California.  He commented on a previous post about pretests.  I totally neglected to follow up.  Why?  Choose one:

(A) Because I've been in eight different cities this summer for various lengths of time and with various levels of internet access;

(B) I'm a negligent dork.

Whatever the reason,* Jason's query deserves a response.  He said:
* "B!B!B!B!" shouts Burrito Girl from the other room

"What do you think about the value of a pre-test with regards to a student observing their own progress? We're going to pre-test this year with that purpose. Curious on your opinion."

Preface my response with the fact that we teach very different populations. You're teaching a general-population middle school, according to your google profile; I'm teaching junior and senior boys at an independent school, where we don't have the top 5% or the bottom 30% of the students you will teach.

For MY CLASSES, I don't at all believe in the pretest for self-evaluation... for several reasons.

(1) Students aren't really supposed to know much about physics coming in. We all know that they will have serious misconceptions.  So, a pretest exposing those misconceptions will produce astoundingly poor performance, almost like saying "look how dumb you are now!" I think that sets up serious hostility, where students are likely to dig their heels in to prove me wrong rather than to go with the flow of the course.

(2) I think the better way for students to observe their progress is simply to talk to their peers.. This happens naturally. You expose a misconception to the class, and the students themselves tend to become uncomfortable when a peer makes that error in conversation or on homework problems. That's when they say, "look how much I've learned."

(3) While I do agree that it is important for students to see how much they've learned and to be proud of their progress, I don't believe such progress can be properly "measured" by a pre- and post- test. You give tests already. If these are authentic, then they should serve this purpose of demonstrating progress. There's no need to rub the students' nose in the fact that they didn't know anything coming in to the course... they weren't supposed to!

(4) If nothing else, a pretest wastes a class early in the year when you have the students' maximum attention due to the novelty of school. I prefer to use that time to show demonstrations.

Now, the biggest difference in our classes is the level. My students are adult-like. I carefully distance myself from many of the "educational methods" that they have been exposed to in middle school or elementary school, because 16-18 year olds rebel automatically if they perceive that I'm treating them like kids. I would worry that a pre-test might be perceived as a cute little technique that I learned in ed-school, that might be prefaced by "Now, Boys and Girls..." That's a disaster when dealing with 16-18 year old boys.

You're teaching co-ed middle school. I don't know enough about how to teach that level. It might be that kids that age NEED the rub-your-nose-in-it "you don't know nothin' about physics yet, but I'll help you figure it out!" that a pretest might provide. They might need more than just a midterm exam to show them how far they've come in their knowledge. They might need more concrete goals than I provide, and a pretest might fill that need.

So my answer to your comment, Jason, where you asked for my opinion of a pretest for the purpose of student self-evaluation, boils down to my throwing the question back at you. Having heard my thoughts based on teaching upper-level high school boys, what is YOUR opinion of how a pretest would work or not work at the middle school level? You are more likely the expert in this situation, and I'd love to hear your answer.


  1. Thanks for the reply. I've actually convinced the science department not to pretest for precisely the reasons given. Mainly, the students don't come in knowing any of what we're teaching so really it ends up being a discouraging fail-fest.

    It's worth it to separate pretests from diagnostic tests. I think of pretests as the beginning of the unit "preview" types of things. Those I haven't yet to be found useful.

    On the other hand, our math teachers really like the beginning of the year diagnostic tests so they can focus on what to review. They tell me the results seem to vary (especially because our math department has such high turnover) so it helps them focus on a few key skills to review before they can get on to new content.

    For middle school science? It's fair to say most of us are blank slate teachers and start off assuming zero prior knowledge. In California our content sequences don't vertically align so the previous year's content is completely divorced from the current year. Glaring math deficiencies tend to get taught as needed. I can't think of any reason to give a diagnostic like a math teacher would.

    Thanks again for the reply.

  2. But, the pretest is useful, because it sometimes uncovers areas of misconception that you hadn't anticipated. My students sometimes come in having taken 9th grade Physical Science, and sometimes not. Their level of readiness to proceed is therefore different.

    Also, it can be a point of pride for the students to reflect after the post-test just how much they had learned.