Examining the Quiz

Credit: iStock.com/Vladislav Chorniy
Credit: iStock.com/Vladislav Chorniy

We’re ready to share responses to our call for insights, experiences, and opinions on quizzes. You can expect to see them over the course of the next several weeks. I’ll start here with an overview of the issues to consider if you want to start using quizzes, review your current practices, or make some changes.

Next week, we’ll post a fun quiz on quizzes—one for you to take. It’s not open book, it’s not worth extra credit, and it won’t be graded. The questions do have “right” answers, which will be provided, but don’t cheat. After that, we’ll share two innovative approaches to quizzing. Finally, we’ll conclude with a piece that describes how moving quizzes online changed one instructor’s view of quizzes.

Why quizzes?

Quizzes accomplish lots of purposes, the biggest and most important one being that they improve student learning. The purposes listed here explain how they do so.

  • They get students coming to class—and on time if the quiz begins class. Hannah Mechler (Grays Harbor College) adds another benefit. She writes that quizzes in her courses get student reviewing assigned readings before they come to class.
  • Students report spending more time reading when quizzes are a part of the course than in sections of the same course where there are no quizzes.
  • Keith Weber (Rochester Institute of Technology) uses quizzes to assess student mastery of content for his benefit and theirs: “They make students aware of gaps in their knowledge.” He also finds out what content areas need more emphasis or further clarification.
  • Students report spending more time studying between exams when the course has quizzes. That means less cramming and more regular studying, or what researchers call distributed practice, which has been shown to positively affect exam performance.
  • Quizzes give students practice taking tests, and that achieves the benefits of test-enhanced learning if the grading stakes are low. Hannah Mechler has found that “quizzes are also beneficial as they prepare student for higher-stakes assignment such as final exams.” Her students report that they find quizzes useful aids for summarizing and conceptualizing course content. For an excellent overview of test-enhanced learning, see here. For a specific study of testing effects gained by quizzes, see here.
  • Research documents that quizzes increase participation in courses and lower failure rates.
  • Quizzes improve scores on midcourse tests and on the final—which, again, multiple studies support. That improvement occurs even when the quizzes were open book and notes.
  • Quizzes can be designed in ways that make them part of a flexible, supportive learning environment. That’s the purpose Saadiqa Khan (Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies) uses them to accomplish. Her quizzes give students the opportunity to improve their learning and independence in the course. She offers students additional quiz opportunities if they are unhappy with the results of an earlier quiz.

What about the implementation details? Advice on the nuts and bolts

Kinds of questions: Multiple-choice and short-answer questions are widely used because they lend to quick or electronic grading. Unfortunately, efficient question formats often test specifics, details, facts—the kind of content that can be memorized, not material that promotes thinking. And, if quiz questions are not like exam questions, that adds challenge. How do students prepare for that type of question if they first they see them is on a high-stakes exam?

Quiz content: Usually quizzes cover either material presented previously, or they focus on assignments to be read before class. With previously covered material, the goal, as Hannah Mechler points out, is to ascertain mastery of the material which benefits students and the teacher. With reading quiz questions, the goal is developing some familiarity with content so that students aren’t hearing it for the first time in class. Hannah Mechler adds, “I have found that giving students opportunities to create quiz questions fosters interest in the material and encourages students to learn and review the content.”

Access to resources: When students can use their texts and notes during the quiz, that decreases anxiety and generally means students find the right answers to the quiz questions. Keith Weber calls his quizzes “knowledge checks” and he lets students look up the answers if they don’t know. His rationale: “They’re still learning the material.” There’s a large literature on collaborative quizzing—letting students work together after they’ve submitted their own quiz or to prepare one quiz collectively. (See here and here.) This approach promotes serious discussions of content. Mick Charney (Kansas State University) lets students answer quiz questions during class, and he lays out his approach in an upcoming article.

How quizzes relate to other and exam events: Cumulative quizzes are a good way to prepare students for cumulative exams. They can also reinforce connections between current and previously covered material. Keith Weber notes another advantage: “Cumulative quizzes help by not blindsiding the student with entirely new material each time.” Hannah Mechler uses quiz content to create reviews just prior to exams and that makes the quizzes useful study aids, according to students.

Worth of quizzes: Generally, each quiz is worth only a small percentage of the course grade. It’s 5 percent in Saadiqa Khan’s courses, but she uses quizzes extensively, and so they end up counting for 40 percent of students’ grades. The less a quiz counts, the less anxiety it promotes and the more readily quizzes accomplish formative goals—like getting students focused on figuring out what they don’t understand rather than fretting about the grade. At the same time, if quizzes don’t count for something, most students won’t study for them. The possibility of points motivates most students.

Missed quizzes: Most faculty (and it was the consensus in your responses) drop the lowest score or a couple of them. That solution frees instructors from having to adjudicate excuses or devise some make-up scheme. As Keith Weber writes, it “allows the student to have a bad day, an illness, or a flat tire.” Here’s a link to some research on dropping lowest scores.

Like so many instructional tools, quizzes can be used to accomplish different objectives and variously designed. If there’s a magic formula, it’s the one that works best given your objectives, the course content, and the learning needs of your students. Unfortunately, the only way to discover that set of design details involves trying out various combinations. This series aspires to provide lots of possibilities and the motivation to try some of them.

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We’re ready to share responses to our call for insights, experiences, and opinions on quizzes. You can expect to see them over the course of the next several weeks. I’ll start here with an overview of the issues to consider if you want to start using quizzes, review your current practices, or make some changes.

Next week, we’ll post a fun quiz on quizzes—one for you to take. It’s not open book, it’s not worth extra credit, and it won’t be graded. The questions do have “right” answers, which will be provided, but don’t cheat. After that, we’ll share two innovative approaches to quizzing. Finally, we’ll conclude with a piece that describes how moving quizzes online changed one instructor’s view of quizzes.

Why quizzes?

Quizzes accomplish lots of purposes, the biggest and most important one being that they improve student learning. The purposes listed here explain how they do so.

What about the implementation details? Advice on the nuts and bolts

Kinds of questions: Multiple-choice and short-answer questions are widely used because they lend to quick or electronic grading. Unfortunately, efficient question formats often test specifics, details, facts—the kind of content that can be memorized, not material that promotes thinking. And, if quiz questions are not like exam questions, that adds challenge. How do students prepare for that type of question if they first they see them is on a high-stakes exam?

Quiz content: Usually quizzes cover either material presented previously, or they focus on assignments to be read before class. With previously covered material, the goal, as Hannah Mechler points out, is to ascertain mastery of the material which benefits students and the teacher. With reading quiz questions, the goal is developing some familiarity with content so that students aren’t hearing it for the first time in class. Hannah Mechler adds, “I have found that giving students opportunities to create quiz questions fosters interest in the material and encourages students to learn and review the content.”

Access to resources: When students can use their texts and notes during the quiz, that decreases anxiety and generally means students find the right answers to the quiz questions. Keith Weber calls his quizzes “knowledge checks” and he lets students look up the answers if they don’t know. His rationale: “They’re still learning the material.” There’s a large literature on collaborative quizzing—letting students work together after they’ve submitted their own quiz or to prepare one quiz collectively. (See here and here.) This approach promotes serious discussions of content. Mick Charney (Kansas State University) lets students answer quiz questions during class, and he lays out his approach in an upcoming article.

How quizzes relate to other and exam events: Cumulative quizzes are a good way to prepare students for cumulative exams. They can also reinforce connections between current and previously covered material. Keith Weber notes another advantage: “Cumulative quizzes help by not blindsiding the student with entirely new material each time.” Hannah Mechler uses quiz content to create reviews just prior to exams and that makes the quizzes useful study aids, according to students.

Worth of quizzes: Generally, each quiz is worth only a small percentage of the course grade. It’s 5 percent in Saadiqa Khan’s courses, but she uses quizzes extensively, and so they end up counting for 40 percent of students’ grades. The less a quiz counts, the less anxiety it promotes and the more readily quizzes accomplish formative goals—like getting students focused on figuring out what they don’t understand rather than fretting about the grade. At the same time, if quizzes don’t count for something, most students won’t study for them. The possibility of points motivates most students.

Missed quizzes: Most faculty (and it was the consensus in your responses) drop the lowest score or a couple of them. That solution frees instructors from having to adjudicate excuses or devise some make-up scheme. As Keith Weber writes, it “allows the student to have a bad day, an illness, or a flat tire.” Here’s a link to some research on dropping lowest scores.

Like so many instructional tools, quizzes can be used to accomplish different objectives and variously designed. If there’s a magic formula, it’s the one that works best given your objectives, the course content, and the learning needs of your students. Unfortunately, the only way to discover that set of design details involves trying out various combinations. This series aspires to provide lots of possibilities and the motivation to try some of them.