I ♥ quizzes

I’ve been teaching undergrads now for seven years (with a semester off here and there for maternity leave). A semester has not gone by when I haven’t noodled around with some property of my teaching or other. I’ve been super-strict, I’ve been super-lenient. I’ve chalked and talked, I’ve discussed. I’ve PowerPointed, I’ve blackboarded. I’ve required group work, I haven’t required group work. I’ve written syllabi that were basically contracts, I’ve written ones that were brief and open-ended. I’ve banned laptops, I’ve allowed them. I’ve counted participation, I’ve not counted it.

There was one single change that made by far the most dramatic difference. Weekly quizzes!

I got the idea a couple of years ago after reading a study on the benefits of quizzes. Before then, I’d considered quizzes somewhat silly, vaguely paternalistic, and more appropriate for other kinds of classes than philosophy, except logic. After reading the study, I thought it was worth a shot. I made weekly quizzes worth 10% of their grade and dropped the lowest score. Basically, the students could totally bail on 2 or 3 of them without any significant effect on their final grade.

Attendance shot way up and stayed up. More students obviously did the reading and paid attention in lecture. The quality of papers soared as well. For some reason, they find quizzes incredibly (irrationally) motivating. Participation grades could be a higher percentage of their final grade and they still won’t show up to class or do the reading. The same person who will hand in lazy paper worth 25% of her grade will freak out if she misses or fails a quiz. Students who are failing see it earlier and drop earlier. I’m not sure why they are so sensitive to quizzes, but they are. Moreover, there’s something about quizzing that definitely seems to focus them and significantly improve their recall and understanding.

Every semester since I’ve started them, students mention them on evaluations very positively. They appreciate that it keeps them on their toes and they know what I’m looking for. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback on quizzing once.

Best of all, it takes me maybe 20 minutes a week to write up a true/false quiz and Blackboard does the grading (I hate many things about Blackboard, but that’s one nice way to use it). So it’s next to no effort for a drastically improved lecturing experience and student outcome. Love it.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I have a little experience with Blackboard as a student. There seemed to be much room for improvement, but a nice resource. I could not have made it through statistics class without it.

    • (Patrick, if you read this, I’d be curious to know what you think of Blackboard.)

      As a teacher, that’s basically how I view it. My main problems with it are non-existent support documentation and that it’s often clunky and counterintuitive. I have spent hours trying to figure out how to do what should be a relatively simple task. The discussion board is practically unusable.

      But the grade center is particularly flexible, and I love that students have an ongoing take on how they are doing. Right now, I use it for grade calculations, quizzes, and posting course documents.

      • I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate Blackboard’s interface, particularly on the teacher side.

        Whoever came up with that UI needs to be taken out to the shed and beaten within an inch of his life.

        • Totally agreed about the UI. Two of my favorites are to post a quiz, apparently, export test and import test do I know not what. You have to know to figure out to make the test in the test center, then go to assignments and post a test. And how often have I forgotten to click “make available to students”? I wouldn’t have f’ing posted it if I didn’t want it to be available to students.

        • Ditto on Blackboard’s user-unfriendliness.

          Rose, I am in the process of setting up the same thing for my American Government class, a quiz on each chapter, closing 15 minutes before class starts. For me, at least, worse than poor attendance is students not bothering to read the assigned material.

          • I’m okay with poor attendance – if only interested students show up, what’s the harm? But it is more pleasant when everyone does better.

            I, too, hate when students don’t do the reading and I have to spend the entire lecture re-capping it and can’t discuss it.

            Let me know if it works well for you. I combined it with questions on the reading due before the lecture, and gave the quiz at the end of the week.

        • I will say this in general:

          **Nobody** has good training programs for any of this stuff. Why? Because nobody comes to the workshops that are offered (to be fair, the workshops are usually done horribly because nobody… NOTANYBODYANYWHERE in the history of IT has *ever* had a big enough line item for “system training and adoption rollout”).

          You want a solution that works at the university level? Hire somebody who knows what they’re doing to make a good workshop… and then pay your faculty $500 to go take it, and revoke their parking passes if they don’t go.

          • I am a training program for my employer, in a manner of speaking. I don’t work in this industry, but I do work in industry-specific software with a lot of the same challenges. One of our competitive advantages is that we send somebody on-site for the first five weeks. That’s me. The customers absolutely love having a guy they can physically talk to and ask. I also see the various problems and make configuration alterations or sometimes phone home to deploy something from our arsenal. The rest of the time I’m setting up a configuration for Toledo while I am in Omaha.

            If they didn’t hate workshops, I might not have a job. Or I’d get to stay in Houston, have a girlfriend and a normal life instead of spending 20 weeks a year on the road.

            I don’t know if our business model would work for universities, though. I usually get a cube somewhere in the building and there aren’t 200 buildings.

          • You have a terrible job.

            On the other hand, if you’re really good at it, you’re an angel to those you work for, and it’s a hell of a jazzy rush when you really nail it.

          • I probably make more than twice what someone with my education and experience should, so I’ll take a lot of lumps for that. Pursuant to a lot of what you’re saying, we usually have two workshops. The first one that nobody pays attention to, and then another a week or two later when people realize that they should have paid attention.

            I keep waiting to be able to impress a cute office girl with my sorcery that I am able to score a date. That keeps not happening.

          • I like when you link back to Hit Coffee, Will. I never go there unless you do and I’m never sorry that I did.

          • Thanks!

            (To be fair to Mr Blue, I think he gets rental cars for his trips. I just enjoy giving him a hard time and periodically like to link back to the old haunt.)

      • I think part of it is that the fear of quizes/tests is ingrained in most students from a young age. Like “pop quiz” is the nightmare from 2nd grade, whereas your essay submissions are something you never really worried with until you were old enough to slack off.

  2. I’m *terrible* at self-teaching. I don’t have the motivation to read things in detail and really commit to figuring out how the parts work together. Regular homework/problem sets or quizzes are precisely the thing my brain needs to focus its energy on really understanding material. My suspicion is that this is very common and why quizzes work so well.

    Quizzes also focus on facts in a way other material doesn’t. (Obviously you have to know facts to write a good paper, but it’s not really what papers are about.) Facts are easy to learn, if you put in a small amount of effort, and it feels good to know them (cf. the enduring popularity of Jeopardy). The side effect, for you, is that people who are well-informed about what the material *is* are much better at telling you what it *means*.

  3. Out of curiosity: Would you say quizzes have a higher motivating effect for your male or female students. Or is the effect gender neutral?

    • Have not noticed a gender difference, but have not attended to it. If I were to predict, I would predict males would benefit from it more, but I’m not sure that it’s the case.

      I do notice a big difference in what the B student can produce.

  4. I have mixed feelings about quizzes. I think they are a paternalistic tool, but they are an *effective* one and just because I didn’t need them most of the time, doesn’t mean they weren’t good for the class as a whole. I much prefer them over strict attendance requirements.

    I also want to second everything Ryan says, except as it applies to me personally. I’m a better self-learner, provided that I am duly motivated (it’s a class that’s interesting or that I recognize as being important). The increased latitude in college made me enjoy it tons more than high school and get more out of it. But I know a number of other people who need to structure, the regular benchmarks, and so on.

    • More on track to the OP – Quizzes are good for undergrads.

      If you tried to quiz me as a graduate student, I’d drop your class. I don’t have the flexibility to deal with that.

      • Pat, how is it a flexibility problem? The one (incredibly great) grad school prof I’ve seen give quizzes gave them like this:

        1) open for taking for a week
        2) a little more time to take them than I think was necessary (ie about an hour when it took me about 30 minutes)
        3) one no-fault re-try in case you just messed something up, had a wireless glitch, the cat or kid pounded your keyboard outta nowhere, etc.

        Since it takes me hours uninterrupted to write papers (which she also required, of course), I appreciated the switchup.

        • Ah, online? Hm, that could work out, yes, especially if you’re on an honor system. Then it would be more of a carrot than a stick.

  5. > (Patrick, if you read this, Iā€™d be curious to know
    > what you think of Blackboard.)

    I’ve used Sakai as a student and I’ve run Moodle as an administrator and I’ve seen various presentations of Blackboard, but I haven’t used it myself in either mode so I can’t speak directly to the things that people have told me suck about it (or are great). And if I’ve learned one thing in IS&T, it’s that a user feedback of N for N < gabolzillion is dicey.

    Sakai is badly structured for my taste. Moodle is a godawful mess unless you run it like UCLA runs it, where you have a team of 100 or so programmers dedicated to making the thing do everything and the kitchen sink.

    The problem with any content management system is aligning the process with the tool. If you don't do enough on the tool end to make it close to intuitive for everyone on the user end to adapt to their process, you've got a tool that nobody is going to use.

    Unless the boss dictates that their paycheck depends on it. That works, usually.

    Online/IS course management tools are particularly dicey on account o' there are so. many. process patterns. when it comes to education. A knowledge management solution that might work for a phil class would be worse than useless for a calc class (awk… TeX documents!?!??!) and neither would do for a journalism class, most likely.

    Iff'n you want my opinion, all of these solutions suffer from creeping featurism. What you really want is a very modular system with well defined interfaces. But nobody gets rich doing that.

    • Why wouldn’t someone get rich doing that? (Not snarky – I’m really curious.) I agree totally about the different needs of departments. Couldn’t some sort of modular thing be grouped by different needs (e.g., phil, English, foreign lang, history, poli sci are all going to be relatively similar in needs).

      My university is about the same size as UCLA. I can’t imagine what it takes to keep everything glued together.

      • It’s probably not. Glued together, I mean. Not in any sane way.

        You’d be surprised at the things I’ve seen. I’ve seen things… terrible things. Things that make an ordered mind shrivel into madness and scream in the darkness. There aren’t enough ordered minds in my business.

        As to why people won’t get rich doing that, it’s not a get rich problem domain. It’s a sustain domain, granted. Sort of like the Matlab folks. Several someones in the hierarchy of MathWorks is in the 1%, but it’s not like people who work for Facebook. Get in early enough as the janitor and you’re golden.

        The biggest problem with modular designs is that your competitors are going to fight you with monolithic designs and monolithic designs appeal to the procurement department. When you make a modular design, in order for it to *really* work, you need a bunch of smart folk carrying the load for the modular bits and a well-ordered structure dictating the interfaces with an iron fist. Really smart, innovative people don’t necessarily like developing in that sort of environment, it feels like you’re wrapped in a well-meaning straitjacket all the time.

        Here’s a perfect example: why is Microsoft Office a requirement on nearly every machine currently deployed in the wild? The number of users who need functionality beyond that of Notepad++ is vanishingly small. But Office is on every machine.

        People don’t really like toolboxes. They like hammers. And they don’t just like “hammers”, as a class of tool, they like “this hammer, that they’ve used for 10 years”, to solve all sorts of …

        Ah, now I’m wandering.

        In a pessimistic nutshell, people don’t want this problem solved because they’ve already got a solution, in their head. And they don’t want to use a different solution… they want to use the one that is in their head. And if you give them something other than the one that is in their head, you need to perform some serious ninjitsu to prevent an outright revolt.

        There’s just not that many good ninjas in IT. As much as they like pretending that they’re ninjas, they’re terrible at it. šŸ™‚

        • s/is in the 1%/are in the 1%

          Kitty and the kids are on the east coast and I’m drinking an Arrogant Bastard.

    • Iff’n you want my opinion, all of these solutions suffer from creeping featurism. What you really want is a very modular system with well defined interfaces.


    • Google Apps for Education does a fine job of managing this problem. Integrate with Google Calendar and you’re off and running.

      Nice thing about Google’s approach: you can do it your way. Following the metaphors of paper are simple and forthright. Blackboard is a mess, all those closed-source systems are worthless imho. Collaboration is trivial: I could literally sit in Phoenix or Baton Rouge and tutor my g/f, operating on the same document. She could watch my cursor move, I could watch hers.

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