If you want to get the most out of any practice session, there is a secret tool called “pretesting” which has been proven to increase the effectiveness of studying.
The idea is simple: you take a test before you start studying.
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If it sounds frustrating, you’re right. And that’s exactly the point. It’s a form of metacognition which allows you to have greater insight into your learning, which has been proven to speed up the learning process.
1) Plant a Seed of Frustration
The theory behind pretesting is that a “failed retrieval” is not really a failure at all.
When you try to remember something you haven’t learned yet, you’re priming yourself to learn that information. In the same way that “unclosed loops” and incomplete goals create a psychological need to finish the task, when you pretest you’re telling your brain “here’s what you’re going to want to know.”
Benedict Carey explains this in more detail in his book How We Learn:
unsuccessful retrieval attempts—i.e., wrong answers—aren’t merely random failures. Rather, the attempts themselves alter how we think about, and store, the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we learn from answering incorrectly—especially when given the correct answer soon afterward.
You’ve essentially planted a seed of frustration.
2) Draw your Map
Before you jump into your studies, there’s one more important step.
Take the time to reflect on the test and think about what you can infer about what you’re going to learn, even before you start learning. You’ll be surprised just how much gather. If you took a test on biology, you might not know any of the vocabulary but you can guess at what concepts are related to each other and see the structure of the information. If you’re pretesting with a musical instrument, like trying to play a hard guitar song, you can see where the fun riffs and challenging spots are going to be. This sort of high-level overview will give you a “map of the territory” which you are about to begin exploring.
Think of learning like an undiscovered island. Pretesting is like sailing around the island to understand its shape. You draw the borders of your map, and once you land and begin studying you begin to fill in the details, building out your map.
As you take good notes, the information you need to know will jump out at you. The test you took at the beginning might not look exactly like the test you’re going to take later on, but that is okay.
3) Retrace your Steps
After you start practicing, you should periodically revisit the pretest to see how far you’ve come on your map.
You’ve turned the pretest into a white-whale style goal. Each time you revisit the pretest, the territory will be a bit more familiar. You’ll have the satisfaction of being able to answer those frustrating questions. The finer features of the subject will start to become clear, and you’ll begin to develop true comprehension.
Here are some suggestions as to how you might use pretesting:
When starting a new class in school, ask the professor if there are tests from previous semesters available (especially multiple choice tests). If there aren’t, try to find some online (maybe from a similar class, or from the textbook you’re using). Take the first test before starting the class, the second test after a few weeks of study, and so on. Compare and perhaps even graph your scores to see your improvement over time.
When learning a new song on an instrument, slow down the song and play every single note. Notice the places that are hard, such as difficult transitions on the guitar. Then speed it up and try to play it at full speed. Later on, when you start practicing, you’ll be aware of where the difficult parts lie. This can save you from mistakes like using the wrong chord pattern on the guitar and thus developing bad habits.
Have you tried pretesting? Need some help? Drop me a line!