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Before March 2020, I believed firmly that frequent, in-class quizzes were a way to ensure students had prepared for class and had some understanding of the material. In fact, I was notorious for pop quizzes, although I did make it a practice of dropping the lowest quiz scores. During my decades teaching, I never really questioned the efficacy of quizzes—not until that one day in March 2020, a day that helped me change my teaching practices for the better.

Like most other teachers, I switched to online quizzes during the pandemic. Having to do so was beneficial to me and my students for several reasons, but primarily because the transition to online learning made me question, deeply, my pedagogical practices. I had a great deal of trouble crafting the online quizzes particularly at first: I didn’t want students simply looking up answers to quizzes, so I used short-answer prompts, but I quickly discovered students were collaborating and not doing their own work. To solve that problem, I relied on question banks. Unfortunately, some students ended up with questions that were harder to answer than others, and thus I was confronted with conundrums regarding inclusivity and equity.

Not sure what to do, I sent students a survey asking them what they saw as the purpose of quizzes and how they would like me to use them. Most of the students understood the need for quizzes. They made these suggestions. “Make them more fun.” “Let us have more than one chance to take them so we won’t get so anxious.” “Write WHY we’re taking them in the directions field.”

That last comment was one I found surprisingly puzzling. Why did I use quizzes, anyway? How would I myself describe their purpose? “To prepare you for the exam” was circular reasoning as exams resemble large quizzes. “To make sure you keep up with the reading” seemed arbitrary and punitive. “To help you compare and contrast Gilgamesh and Beowulf as heroes in their respective epics so we can discuss the similarities and differences between pre-Christian and emergent Christian values” was much more specific and much more helpful, not only to the students but also to me.

I worked on their other suggestions. To make the quizzes fun, I included pictures, graphics, and silly stories. For example, rather than asking students to define the affective fallacy, I made up a story about ungendered “Ickle and Pickle,” who were discussing a book and found it high value because they liked it. The quiz question asked, “What common fallacy are Ickle and Pickle falling into?” If students got the answers wrong, I let them retake the quiz. I had them explain why the correct answer was correct.

The changes I implemented allowed me to use more research-based practices, such as interleaving and backward design. The students tell me they see the reason for the quizzes and that the way I’m using them now has reduced their anxiety. My initial belief that quizzes should test student knowledge has completely changed. I now believe quizzes can and should be used as learning tools. Giving students autonomy over their learning practices helps them practice higher-order thinking skills, thereby allowing them to broadly apply course curriculum in both their college and post-college lives.

Ana Schnellmann, PhD, is a professor of English at Lindenwood University.