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Yesterday I shared some thoughts about pretesting that were prompted by a year-old post by Scott McCleod. Today, I came across another year-old blog post, this time by Angela Meiers. In this article, she talks about how comprehension is not something that can be contained in a discrete list of facts and skills, but rather it is an ongoing, recursive process of applying those facts and skills to build a picture of the world.

It occurs to me that what we often do in school is something like handing the students a birdhouse kit. The pieces are pre-measured and pre-cut, and everything we need is already there. We walk them all step-by-step through the assembly of the kit, focusing on their technique in hammering and gluing. It doesn’t matter that some of the kids have designed and built their own birdhouses, and others haven’t ever seen a bird before. At the end of the lesson, everyone in the class has an identical birdhouse–though perhaps we allow them to choose their own colors for the paint.

Rather than giving a pretest that runs through all of the discrete skills in a unit (“explain how to hammer a nail without bending it”, “which goes on first, the roof or the base?”), consider giving your students a one-question pretest that gets at the most important aspects of the unit you are going to teach: “Draw a design for a birdhouse and explain how you would build it.” Here are some sample One-Question Pretests that might work in various subject areas:

  • Explain how America became an independent country
  • Pretzels come in bags of 24 and you want to give one to each of the 473 students in our school. Figure out how many bags we need to buy and show how you computed the answer without a calculator.
  • Where do new plants come from, and how do they grow?
  • Tell me what grade you should get for this class, and write a paragraph that convinces me you’ve earned it.
  • Read the beginning of this story and write what you think will happen next. Explain why you think so.

While you wouldn’t get discrete data on what specific skills and knowledge your students have, a careful reading and analysis of the students’ responses can give you a wealth of information that would be immensely helpful in planning your instruction. It wouldn’t take any more time than a traditional pretest. If you embed it into other activities, such as including the pretest as a learning center activity that all students will complete over the course of a week during normal rotations, it might even take less time.

How can you apply the One-Question Pretest idea to your own subject and grade level?

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