Revisiting the Past with Retrospective Pretests

Updated November 16, 2023

In research design, we often use diverse methods to draw inferences, better understand our population of interest, and effectively address our research questions. When measuring change or improvements due to a specific intervention or program, one common approach is the pretest-posttest design. This design evaluates respondents’ knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors before and after an intervention.

However, an alternative and sometimes more beneficial approach is called the “retrospective pretest” method. This article explores the retrospective pretest method, highlighting its advantages over the traditional pretest-posttest design.

The Method

The retrospective pretest is a survey methodology that asks respondents to reflect on their state of knowledge, attitude, or behavior before the intervention or program during the same time they are asked about their current state.

In simpler terms, it asks respondents to rate their pre-intervention status at the post-intervention time point.

The retrospective pretest method is particularly useful when respondents may not have accurate self-perceptions or awareness of their skills or attitudes before the intervention. It is also highly valuable in contexts where a pretest might influence the respondents’ behavior during the intervention (testing effect).

Advantages of the Retrospective Pretest

While the traditional pretest-posttest design has its strengths, it has its fair share of limitations. This is where the retrospective pretest method shines, offering several advantages:

  1. Response Shift Bias: Traditional pretest-posttest designs can suffer from response shift bias, a phenomenon where the respondents’ understanding of the subject matter changes due to the intervention. This means their frame of reference for answering the pretest and posttest could be different, which can distort the measurement of change. The retrospective pretest method minimizes this bias, as respondents use the same reference frame to evaluate their pre and post-states.
  2. Reduced Testing Effect: In some instances, taking the pretest itself may influence how respondents behave or respond to the intervention, known as the testing effect. A retrospective pretest eliminates this concern because there’s no initial test to influence respondents’ behaviors.
  3. Recognition of Subtle Changes: A retrospective pretest allows for better recognition of subtle changes or slow transitions that might not be evident in a traditional pretest-posttest design. Respondents can often overlook or undervalue these changes at the onset of the intervention.
  4. Applicability to Unexpected Learning: In many cases, learning outcomes or impacts of an intervention are not fully anticipated at the beginning of the program. Retrospective pretest methodology allows for measuring unexpected or unplanned outcomes because it asks about changes after the respondents have completed the program.
  5. Cost and Time Effective: Implementing a retrospective pretest is typically less time-consuming and less expensive than a traditional pretest-posttest design as it requires only one point of data collection instead of two.

While the retrospective pretest method presents a compelling case, it’s crucial to note that it might not be appropriate for all studies or interventions. There’s a risk of recall bias, where respondents might not accurately remember their initial state. Also, for long-duration programs, the retrospective pretest might be less accurate. Therefore, it’s essential to consider the nature of the intervention, the characteristics of the respondents, and the research goals when choosing between the retrospective pretest and traditional pretest-posttest design.

The retrospective pretest method can provide researchers with a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of an intervention’s impact in many situations. The key lies in knowing its potential and when it’s appropriate to employ this innovative survey method.

Stay Current With Emerging Methods: Sign Up for This Week in Science

* indicates required