Online Quiz Formats: Do They Matter?

Use of online quizzing continues to grow. If taken online, quizzes don't consume valuable class time. Grading occurs automatically and doesn't consume valuable teacher time. Students get feedback immediately. The technology also offers a variety of format options. But do we know anything about how these various quiz formats affect learning? We don't know much and so far the research offers an array of mixed results. But a recent study finds that format does make a difference.

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Use of online quizzing continues to grow. If taken online, quizzes don't consume valuable class time. Grading occurs automatically and doesn't consume valuable teacher time. Students get feedback immediately. The technology also offers a variety of format options. But do we know anything about how these various quiz formats affect learning? We don't know much and so far the research offers an array of mixed results. But a recent study finds that format does make a difference.

Students in this study (a sizable cohort) were enrolled in one or two semesters of an introductory undergraduate physiology course at the University of New South Wales. Starting in 2009 a quizzing component was introduced in the course, and during the next three years it was used in the four different formats described below.

  1. Three quizzes, each worth 5 percent of the grade, taken without supervision, with the use of notes and textbook discouraged, each 10 questions and each completed in 20 minutes with only one try
  2. Three quizzes, each worth 5 percent of the grade, taken with supervision, no books or notes permitted, each with 10 questions and each completed in 20 minutes with only one try
  3. Two quizzes, each worth 7.5 percent of the grade, taken with supervision, no books or notes, each with 15 questions and each completed in 30 minutes with only one try
  4. Five quizzes, each worth 2 percent of the grade if the score was higher than 90 percent, taken without supervision, open book, with more questions, no time limit and unlimited tries

“Cohorts of students undertaking the courses in which quizzes were offered in the format of models 1-3 did not demonstrate any significant overall improvement in learning outcomes as measured by performance in the summative end-of-session examinations. In contrast, the implementation of quizzes in the format of model 4 ... was associated with a significant improvement in mean summative end-of-session examination scores.” (p. 196) The research team offers this larger conclusion at the end of the article: “Our study supports the notion that in order for online formative assessments to be effective, they must be perceived by students to be relatively low stakes and allow exploration of existing and expected knowledge in a nonthreatening environment.” (p. 199)

There was also a strong correlation between quiz scores obtained in all four formats and scores on the final exam. Students who did well on the quizzes did well on the final, and students who did poorly on the quizzes did poorly on the final exam, often failing it. On the basis of this correlation, the researchers suggest that teachers could use quiz scores to identify those students needing extra help and seek to intervene with them while there is still time for those students to make changes that could improve their overall performance in the course.

Students in these two sequenced courses appreciated the use of quizzes. Sizable majorities said the quizzes guided their study for the exams, helped them learn the content, provided feedback on their learning, and were challenging and valuable overall. A student who took the quizzes in format 4 wrote in response to an open-ended question, “Excellent revision tool. I would read over the lectures first, then attempt them first time under exam conditions—then redo them with material.” (p. 195)

Reference: Marden, N.Y., Ulman, L.G., Wilson, F.S., and Velan, G.M. (2013). Online feedback assessment in physiology: Effects on students' learning experiences and outcomes. Advances in Physiology Education, 37 (2), 192-200.