Using Repetitive Quizzes to Build Knowledge

repetitive quizzes

Every year I teach a compulsory first-year course on the basics of psychology, which includes an introduction to developmental psychology. Lately I have also been teaching a follow-up elective course on child development. When I discovered that many of the students in the elective had also taken the introductory course, I decided to see what they remembered from our time together. I gave them a pretest and discovered that very few of them remembered much of anything from that earlier course. Pretty depressing!

After considering several possible antidotes, I came up with a method that has worked better than I anticipated. I’m now using repetitive quizzes in many of my courses and these quizzes are increasing my students’ long-term retention of the fundamental course knowledge. I start out identifying the foundational knowledge for the course. What are the absolute basics on which the rest of the course is built? What do I want my students to be able to repeat verbatim five years later? What essential content is needed in order to rebuild the details from the course?

I try to take a somewhat minimalist approach in selecting this information. So much of what we learn is quickly forgotten. Long-term retention is limited. Consequently, the more I can pare back the material to the absolute bare essentials, the greater the chance that students will remember it. For example, in developmental psychology I now consider this material essential: Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development; Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development; and four key governing themes significant for human development. I quiz students on this core material. Of course, we cover far more than just these essential elements in the course. However, if the students retain this basic content, they can use it to retrieve other elements from the course.

In a longer course on Bible teaching, I have designated this content as essential: the educational cycle; the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions of learning; Bloom’s taxonomy; the significance of relationships for affective learning; the two key elements of quality curricular goals; the three basic elements in quality Bible interpretation; and the five elements of a quality main point. Again, I’m not asking students to remember great swathes of information, just the fundamentals. By the end of the course, I want students to be able to complete the quiz with mostly perfect scores and in five minutes or less.

Here’s how I accomplish that goal with repetitive quizzes in my psychology course. As the first-year students walk into class for the first of our two three-hour sessions on developmental psychology, I give them the quiz. I tell them they can expect to take the exact same quiz at the beginning and end of each of the two sessions and at the end of the course. Only the end-of-course quiz counts toward their grade. In each case, they have five minutes to complete the quiz.

On that very first quiz, I may have one or two students who can answer one or two of the questions. In some classes, none of the students can answer any of the questions. Even so the first quiz accomplishes a couple of important benefits. First, it enables me to see what, if anything, they already know. Secondly, because students know they will be quizzed with the same questions again, in fact three more times, the quiz provides a framework for the course. Consequently, I find that the students pay far closer attention to the content. I generally give the answers to the quiz very quickly, and then post the answers on our Moodle site.

Because the early material is repeated so often it becomes second nature. With material covered later, the students are primed to pay attention and remember the content. Also, the space between the first and final quizzes contributes to a potentially deeper level of long-term learning.

I’ve found that students enjoy these quizzes, and many will challenge themselves to see how quickly they can complete the questions. It’s a course activity that allows all students to excel. The correct answers can be learned by everyone. That makes the quizzes fun, as opposed to stressful. Since initiating these repetitive quizzes I’m seeing positive changes in students’ long-term retention. Results on the pretest I give in the advanced psychology course have improved notably. Students are able to recall a substantial proportion of the details from the introductory course and that makes their teacher happier and less depressed.

Quizzes have a long history of being used to test knowledge. Perhaps it is time to recognize the potential for using quizzes not just to assess what students know but to build their knowledge base. When the quizzes are repetitive, they effectively implant foundational knowledge in the minds of students.

Perry Shaw is a professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.

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