Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

The Value of Quizzes

Before a quiz became a kind of test, it meant “weirdo,” an eccentric person. Later, from the 1790s until the early twentieth century, “to quiz” could mean to ridicule, or to stare at someone questioningly or scornfully. The earliest attestation of “quiz” as a sort of test is from the 1860s. It seems there may have been a little mockery involved in the first quizzes given to students.

Nothing says “do the reading” like regular quizzes. But we’ve also learned from the research that quizzes are useful for what may be surprising reasons.

If, say, we want students to remember better what we cover in a lecture, then we should quiz them over it at the end of the lesson. As far back as 1923, Harold Jones discovered that, while student recollection of lecture content declined precipitously after three or four days and fell to very low levels after eight weeks, they remembered almost twice as much material eight weeks later, if they took an examination immediately after the lecture.

Writing about the study in 1988, Robert Menges puts it as forcefully as you can: “Replications and refinements of such studies have substantiated the positive effect of immediate testing. It is one of the things that work.”

What’s more, psychologists have identified something they call the “testing effect.” The upshot of the research, according to Roediger and Karpicke, is that frequent testing itself (which Roediger and Karpicke define very broadly as requiring effort for students to recall and manipulate information) actually improves learning—and not just for memory, but for higher-order thinking as well. That’s right: a test doesn’t only measure learning; it can reinforce it. Frequent testing actually helps teach.

Students complain about them. Many faculty dislike taking time for them. But the evidence suggests we should use quizzes often.

Responses from the faculty

NicHolas Tampio (Political science) writes:

"I worry when researchers announce the benefits of testing at this particular historical moment. Look at what is happening in New York State. Since 2010, the amount of time that students in grades 3 through 8 are taking state tests in math and English Language Arts (ELA) has increased by an average of 128%, with third graders seeing an increase of 163%. As a result of the Race to the Top program, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) ranks schools and teachers on their students’ test scores: schools with low test scores may be taken over by the state, teachers with low test scores may be fired.

What happens when schools and teachers are under this kind of pressure to raise test scores? Here is what I see firsthand in my sons’ elementary school. The curriculum has been narrowed to math and ELA with a smattering of other subjects (e.g. history, science) mixed in. The number of field trips to museums, theaters, and nature centers has been reduced to almost nil. Rather than learning the history of the holidays before celebrating them, teachers simply hand out a few treats. Parents are rarely invited to participate in classroom activities. Several New York principals have written a letter to parents detailing the problems they see in the new testing regime.

Cognitive scientists have shown that frequent tests increase intellectual recall. They also make a good point that students need to learn a subject before they can criticize or create within it. The problem, however, is that politicians can translate praise for the “testing effect” into public policies that increase the amount of standardized testing. Based upon my observations, and those of the principals in the aforementioned letter, the New York State testing regime is not teaching students much content, and it is making school a miserable place for many teachers and students."

James MacDonall
(Psychology) writes:

"I've been giving weekly quizzes for more than 20 years. Generally the better students do not mind - they already are keeping up with assignments. Poorer students are oddly grateful for the quizzes. They realize the quizzes are making them do what they should, but generally do not do.

The quiz is at the end of the last class each week. Before the quiz I distribute 3" x 5" cards and each student must either ask a question or write what was most interesting that week. I then read all the cards to the class and answer the questions. Doing this allows questions that were not asked during the week or concepts that are not clear to be addressed before the quiz. When several students have the same question this tells me where I need to change my class activity because students are not learning."

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