Pop Quizzes

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February 2016 Idea

By Barbara Lentz, Wake Forest University School of Law

By Valentine’s Day, we are about one-third of the way through the semester, so it is time to test students on early material they may have forgotten and interweave the practice of a skill or a more recent topic. I administer a short quiz at the beginning of class (aka pop quiz or “an opportunity to assess one’s learning without pre-testing anxiety”). In my classes, there is minimal grousing when the pop quiz appears because my students know that they will have an opportunity to retake the quiz, as part of a group, at the end of class and have their grade determined by an average of the two scores.

Studies show the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing. The best learning happens when testing is regularly spaced into classes over the term.(1) Regular tests promote learning and improve long-term retention.(2) Testing improves learning independent of additional study time.(3) Appropriate testing promotes learning by forcing students to recall and apply knowledge acquired from lectures, reading, discussion and simulations; practicing retrieval over the term (not just cramming for a final exam) makes learning stronger and makes studying for the final more effective and efficient because much less is forgotten along the way.(4)

Now, it is possible that your students may not see testing as the beneficial bridge to durable learning that it is. However, with the opportunity to retake the quiz after class, you likely will enjoy a thoroughly engaged class of attentive students seeking knowledge needed to pass the re-take. At the end of class, I require students to retake the same or substantially similar quiz in a group. High performers do not fear freeloading, as they have locked in a good (but not perfect) grade by performing well on the initial, individual quiz. Group work and discussion develops collaborative skills and leads to more precise, accurate, exact and (if you limit the time and space) concise answers. Group retakes also generate far fewer quizzes to grade while providing immediate formative feedback (and answers) to students who may assess their own learning and study skills months before the final.

Nearly every retake scores 100%, meaning the students have retrieved and demonstrated understanding of the knowledge deemed most crucial by the professor, and also meaning that no class time is needed to further review answers. Yet if you must grade on a curve, averaging the initial and retake grades can create a range of scores while still resulting in all students mastering the material. I have also seen a spillover effect in regular, close reading by more students and student-initiated study groups forming to discuss and distill answers to questions posed in class (which questions are likely candidates for future pop quizzes).

(1) Roediger, H.L., How Tests Make Us Smarter, in New York Times, p. SR12, July 20, 2014.
(2) McDermott, K.B., Kang, S. & Roediger, H.L., Test Format and Its Modulation of the Testing Effect, European J. of Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 19, 528-558 (2007).
(3) Cull, W.L. Untangling the Benefits of Multiple Study Opportunities and Repeated Testing for Cued Recall, Aplied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 14, 215-35 (2000).
(4) See Roediger, How Tests Make Us Smarter, supra.

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