Making Quizzes (More) Worthwhile

Good quizzes take a long time to construct, but students sometimes (often?) complete them very quickly and without much serious thought. And I get it: the temptation to blithely click through each question and swiftly reach the end in order to gain some ‘free’ time must seem irresistible – particularly when the stakes are low and the day is long. However, the obvious consequence of this is that the data generated can become unreliable, which makes it hard to form credible inferences about what students do and don’t know. It can all become a bit pointless.

How students perform on quizzes – and tests in general – is strongly correlated with levels of motivation. This is something that Graham Nuthall explores in The Hidden Lives of Learners. In the second chapter, he recalls observing a maths test on a warm afternoon and makes the point that there were clearly students in the room ‘who cared a great deal about trying to get all the answers right and there were those who couldn’t care less, no matter how hard the teacher tried to motivate them.’ The headline from this section of the book is clear:

‘Tests only become measures of student ability or achievement to the extent that the students are committed to the value of school and to the importance in their lives of getting good grades.’

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t quiz. That’d be daft. But it does mean that we probably need to think carefully about how we quiz. I’ve put a few initial ideas below…

It’s worth over-communicating the purpose and benefits of quizzing. Most students undoubtedly quite like the instant gratification of achieving a decent score, but I don’t seriously believe that many are particularly bothered about getting a poor one. And that’s no bad thing: quizzes work well when the stakes are low. The trouble is, it’s easy for students to conflate low-stakes with low-value. So, how best to convince them otherwise? As a tentative first step, I’d talk to them about what psychologists call the Testing Effect. Put simply, we tend to believe that we know more than we actually do. However, regular low-stakes testing helps to break this illusion and also enhances our ability to remember and swiftly recall more of the information we want. Put simply, quizzing helps to make students smarter and increases their chances of future success – a persuasive message to convey.

I think shorter quizzes are probably better than longer ones. Five carefully constructed questions are more likely to focus student attention than, say, fifteen or twenty. In this respect, less is more. Linked to this, I also think that highlighting the time that students should spend on each question is worthwhile. Inevitably, there’ll be those who whizz through the quiz regardless of what you say. However, some students won’t. I’ve been teaching for over fifteen years and I’m still surprised by how much procedural guidance students need, but won’t necessarily ask for. As ever, making things nice and clear is no bad thing.

Taking plenty of time (emphasis on plenty) to discuss answers and common misconceptions is a good idea. For example, asking students why a particular answer is incorrect is a great way of highlighting and then deconstructing misconceptions. Equally, asking students explain why one of their answers is correct can be powerful and provides an ideal basis for rich conversations about how facts are embedded within (Nuthall’s words) ‘a network of logically interconnected ideas.’ Of course, discussions of this nature can be challenging to facilitate because learning is such an inconveniently messy process. However, my firm advice is to be patient because you’ll find that, over time, you’ll see the benefits and so will the students you teach.

Finally, I think that doing fewer quizzes may not be a bad thing. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve found that creating good ones from scratch can be really time-consuming. In part, this is because quizzes should always be ‘desirably difficult’ – not too easy and not to hard. Hitting the right ‘level’ requires quite a bit of work. There will always be existing ones online or those made by colleagues that you can adapt, but this also takes time. And, on that, please do take a look at a series of three posts on the actual construction of quizzes by Daisy Christodoulou – they’re great. Click here to access them.

Thanks for reading –

Doug