Everything You Need to Know

Students testing in a classroom
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At every grade level and in every discipline, teachers must know what their students know before beginning a new unit of study. One way to make this determination is to use a pretest that assesses student proficiency in the skills that are going to be taught. But how do you write a successful pretest? That's where backward design comes in.

Backward Design

Backward design is defined by the Glossary of Education Reform as follows:

"Backward design begins with the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then proceeds 'backward' to create lessons that achieve those desired goals," (Backward Design Definition).

Pretests were developed through this backward-planning process, which was popularized by educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design. The book detailed the idea of using backward design to write practical pretests.

Wiggins and McTigue argued that lesson plans should begin with final assessments in mind in order to effectively target areas of student weaknesses. A test taken before instruction begins can give teachers a fairly accurate idea of how students might perform on the final assessment, allowing them to better anticipate problems that might arise. Therefore, before instruction, teachers should carefully study pretest results.

How to Use Pretest Data

A teacher can make informed decisions about how to divide their time teaching certain skillsets and concepts using pretest data. If, for example, they have determined that all students have already mastered a particular skill, they can spend significantly less time on this and use the additional instructional time to address material more challenging for their students.

But it isn't usually as simple as students understanding or not understanding something—students can show anything from full to very limited comprehension. Pretests allow teachers to see levels of proficiency for each student. They should assess the degree to which students meet expectations using just prior knowledge.

For example, a geography pretest can assess students' understanding of the concepts of latitude and longitude. Students that demonstrate mastery of this topic either meet or exceed expectations, students somewhat familiar approach expectations, and students demonstrating little to no understanding do not meet expectations.

Rubrics are a great tool for using standards-based identifiers to measure different aspects of student performance, but remember that a student is not supposed to meet expectations on a pretest.

Advantages of Pretests

You are probably already starting to understand the usefulness of pretesting. In their best form, pretests are invaluable instructional tools that offer insight few other tools or methods can. The following reasons make pretests beneficial.

Comprehensive Assessment

Pretests measure student growth over time through comprehensive assessment. They can show a student's level of understanding before and after instruction, even while instruction is still happening.

Comparing pre- and post-tests allows teachers to track student development from one class to the next, between topics, and even from day-to-day. Most forms of assessment just determine whether a student meets expectations after they've been taught, but these fail to account for prior knowledge and incremental progress.

Even when a student doesn't quite demonstrate proficiency on a post-test, pretests can show that they've grown. No amount of progress should be ignored and assessment should not be as limited as "yes" a student meets expectations or "no" they do not.

Preparing Students

Pretests give students a preview of what to expect from a new unit. These tests are often the first time that a student is exposed to new terms, concepts, and ideas. Pretests, therefore, can be used as unit introductions.

Pretesting your students on what you are about to teach can have the effect of relaxing them by the time a post-test comes around. This is because students feel more comfortable with material that is familiar to them and pretests can provide additional exposure.

As long as you keep pretests low stakes for your students and frame them as instructional tools rather than graded assignments, they can be a great way to introduce topics.


Pretests can be used diagnostically to determine if there are any gaps in understanding from previous units taught. Most pretests use elements of review and new material to get a comprehensive picture of student knowledge within a given area. They can be used in this way to assess whether students have retained knowledge from prior lessons.

In addition to informing your future teaching, pretests can be used to show students what they still need to practice. Use completed pretest material to remind students what they learned at the conclusion of a unit and the beginning of the next.

Disadvantage of Pretests

There are plenty of ways that pretesting can go wrong that make many teachers opposed to using them. Read about the following disadvantages to know what to avoid when designing your own pretests.

Teaching to the Test

Perhaps the greatest concern with pretesting is that it contributes to the often unintentional tendency of teachers to "teach to the test". Educators that practice this method prioritize their students' test results above almost everything else and design their instruction with the goal of achieving good test scores in mind.

This notion is obviously problematic as it fails to teach students any skills that do not directly serve them on tests. This often includes critical thinking, problem-solving, and other forms of higher-order reasoning. Teaching to the test serves one purpose and one purpose alone: doing well on tests.

There is growing concern about the use of testing, both standardized and within the classroom, in general. Many feel that today's students are placed under too much pressure and submitted to excessive testing. Students are, after all, spending more time than ever taking standardized tests. There is also worry that testing by its very nature is not equitable and serves some students while disadvantaging others.

Assessment can be very taxing for students and pretests are no exception. Teachers that treat these as they would any other test cause additional exhaustion and anxiety for their students.

Difficult to Design

A poorly-written pretest hurts more than it helps. Pretests are difficult to design in such a way that they don't feel like tests for students but gather data necessary for designing targeted instruction.

Pretests and post-tests should be similar in format but mostly different—pretests are meant to show what students know and post-tests should show whether students meet expectations. Many educators give their students pretests that are nearly identical to their post-tests, but this is bad practice for these reasons:

  1. Students might remember correct answers from pretests and use these on the post-test.
  2. A pretest that resembles a final test makes students feel that there is more at stake. Because of this, bad pretest grades can cause them to shut down.
  3. The same pre- and post-test does little to show growth.

Creating Effective Pretests

Now that you know the pros and cons of pretesting, you should be ready to create your own. Use what you know about good teaching practice and avoid the above pretesting failures to create effective pretests for you and your students.

Teach Students to Fail

Make pretests low pressure by presenting them to your students in a low-pressure environment. Explain that pretest grades will not negatively affect students and encourage them to do their best. Teach your students exactly how you plan to use pretests: to design your instruction and see what students already know.

Help your students to see that not knowing material before it is taught is natural and doesn't speak to academic performance. If you teach your students to be okay with "failing" pretests, they will be more inclined to treat them as opportunities rather than pitfalls and have a healthier view of personal growth.

Give Students Plenty of Time

Pretests are not meant to be time-sensitive. Time limits are for true assessments and setting a time for a pretest will only limit their usefulness. Your students should have as much time as they need to show you what they know. Encourage them to take their time and make the most of the pretest as a unit introduction and tool for review.

Remember that a pretest is often the first time that your students see some or most of the new material of a unit. Don't disadvantage them before that unit has begun by submitting them to a stressful pretesting experience.

Use Pretests to Improve Instruction

Always remember that the purpose of pretesting is to improve your own instruction in order to ultimately benefit your students. Use pretest data to individualize your teaching and show student growth—pretests are not just more test scores for report cards.

If at any point your pretesting causes undue stress to you or your students and/or decreases the effectiveness of your instruction, you need to rethink your design. Using pretests should make your life easier, not more difficult. Design pretests that give you clear and actionable insight that you can immediately plan your teaching around.


  • “Backward Design Definition.” The Glossary of Education Reform, Great Schools Partnership, 13 Dec. 2013.
  • Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.
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Kelly, Melissa. "Pretests." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Pretests. Retrieved from Kelly, Melissa. "Pretests." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).