Kamil Hamaoui (Westchester Community College)
Empirical studies have established that the testing effect is an effective strategy for improving long-term memory (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Roediger, Smith, & Putnam, 2011). In short, we can improve our ability to remember information, concepts, and skills when we test ourselves during learning. In terms of the stage model of memory, if we repeatedly practice retrieving a memory from long-term memory into working memory, it becomes more firmly consolidated in long-term memory, preventing future forgetting.
Most studies of the testing effect have been conducted in the lab, under carefully controlled, artificial conditions, which calls the external validity of the effect into question. However, in recent years, researchers interested in teaching and learning have examined the applicability of the testing effect to the classroom setting. The testing effect can be used in the classroom by administering quizzes on content that students have already learned, whether through reading, lecture, discussion, or some other activity. These quizzes can be multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, etc. and may be administered at the beginning of a class meeting, at the end, or integrated throughout coverage of the content. Does the periodic use of review quizzes in the classroom lead students to better learn and remember course content? Will students who are quizzed perform better on the comprehensive exams given after a block of material or at the end of the term?
Findings from applied studies on the testing effect are mixed, but Nguyen and McDaniel (2015) present some general conclusions in their review of the existing literature. Quizzing does improve exam performance when the exam questions are the same or similar to the quiz questions. However, it seems that there is no improvement if the exam questions test on the same topic as the quizzes, but on different concepts.
This suggests that if we want to make maximum use of the testing effect to improve student learning, we should quiz students on all the concepts we want them to learn. As any instructor knows, however, regardless of the level of experience, this isn’t feasible. As it is, without any class time devoted to quizzing, we struggle with the issue of what content to cover in class, since we don’t have enough time to cover everything we want students to learn. This raises several questions:
- · Can quizzing serve a purpose beyond the testing effect?
- · Will having periodic review quizzes on some concepts motivate students to study outside of the classroom? If so, will the type of studying they do benefit their long-term memory of the material studied?
- · Does it make a difference if the quizzes are graded or ungraded? Will graded quizzes motivate students to study more effectively, leading to better long-term learning?
In order to address these questions and get some answers for myself, I designed and conducted an experiment on the effects of different types of review quizzes on long-term learning in three sections of my General Psychology course at Westchester Community College. I administered periodic short-essay quizzes testing students’ (n = 75) understanding of specific concepts covered during the previous class sessions. Quizzes were scheduled and designated as counting towards the course grade (graded), not counting towards the course grade (ungraded), or potentially counting towards the course grade (pop). For the latter condition, a coin toss just prior to the quiz determined whether the quiz would be graded or not. A Latin square design was used to control for differences in the difficulty of topics and order effects. Specifically, each quiz condition was assigned to a different topic (sensation and perception, learning, or memory) in each of the three sections, and each quiz condition was assigned to a different time in the term (first, second, or third) in each of the three sections.]
Unannounced, practice tests consisting of short-essay questions were administered halfway through the term and at the conclusion of the term. These tests included questions on the same topics as the review quizzes, but on different concepts. I predicted that students would perform better on the topics which had preceding graded or pop review quizzes than ungraded quizzes, thinking that students would study these topics more in preparation for those quizzes.
What did I find? There were no significant differences in test scores between the different quiz conditions. Evidently, the type of studying that students did in preparation for graded or potentially graded quizzes was not beneficial to their long-term learning relative to the type of studying, if any, that students did in preparation for ungraded quizzes. My guess is that most students simply read over their notes for a few minutes right before the quiz as they were waiting for class to begin. This might have been effective for performing well on the quiz, but it did not benefit their long-term learning any more than whatever preparation (probably none) that they did for ungraded quizzes. As we know, reading and understanding what is being read in the moment is not the same thing as learning and remembering something in the long term. Also, “massed practice,” familiar to students as cramming, is not as effective as “distributed practice” or spacing out one’s studying in smaller learning sessions (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Ironically, at the end of the term, students reported that they thought the graded or pop quizzes were best for their personal learning because they studied more. This suggests that students do not have insight into the studying strategies that are required for long-term retention of course content.
What else did students think about the different kinds of quizzes? Beyond their erroneous belief that the additional studying they did for graded or potentially graded quizzes compared to ungraded quizzes was good for their learning, students reported a strong dislike for the pop quizzes. They preferred predictability, either knowing that a quiz would be worth points or not. If it was worth points, they reported being more motivated to study and felt rewarded for their studying. If it was not worth points, they felt less anxiety and could focus on other classes.
So what did I learn from this study? How will it inform my teaching? I learned that ungraded quizzes are the way to go. Making quizzes graded or potentially graded does not lead students to study in ways that benefit their long-term learning any more than making them ungraded, and many students experience increased stress from graded quizzes. In addition, making quizzes graded means you have to grade them, which can take considerable time depending upon the type of questions and the size of the class.
On the other hand, using ungraded, in-class review quizzes has multiple benefits. If exams have similar questions to the quizzes or test on the same concepts, the testing effect will boost students’ learning and performance on the exams. And, a few studies have found that ungraded quizzes actually produce a stronger testing effect than graded quizzes (Khanna, 2015; Wickline & Spektor, 2011).
In addition, with appropriate feedback, review quizzes can serve as a valuable formative assessment tool. Students can learn what they know and what they don’t know, and how their thinking and test-taking can be improved. If quizzes consist of short-answer or short-essay questions, after students write their responses, the teacher can ask students to share what they wrote and then evaluate the responses for students in class. Many criteria or intellectual standards (Paul & Elder, 2000) factor into the quality of written work. These include accuracy, clarity, precision, logic, depth, breadth, relevance, significance, and fairness. Criteria other than accuracy, which is whether the response is correct or incorrect, often make the difference between a “good,” “very good,” or “excellent” response.
For example, let’s say that a student writes that evolutionary psychology is the “study of traits and what they do for us.” This is basically correct, but the response is of low quality. The wording “what they do for us” lacks precision and clarity. The wording could be improved by stating that evolutionary psychology is the study of how traits “function to improve our adaptiveness to the environments in which we live.” The instructor can point out that adaptation, or a variant of the term, is a keyword that should be included in the definition. It could also be pointed out that the response lacks relevance to psychology, which is about behavior and mental processes. To make the response relevant, the wording “behavioral and psychological” traits should be included. Moreover, it’s not just about humans. To make the definition broader, non-human animals, which are studied by comparative psychologists, should be included as well. Taking the time to give this type of detailed feedback in class teaches students about critical evaluation, an important part of critical thinking. It also gives students clear expectations for how their written work on exams and assignments will be graded.
One last benefit of using in-class review quizzes is that they can be used to incentivize attendance and create a more orderly beginning and end to the class session. If attendance is required for the course, papers students use to write their quiz responses can be collected and used to take attendance. If attendance is not required, quizzes can be offered as all-or-none extra credit. We know how much students love extra credit! If the quiz is given at the very beginning of class, students will be encouraged to come on time. Some students will inevitably arrive late, but they will trickle in quietly without causing a disruption to the learning environment. If the quiz is given at the very end of class, students will be encouraged to refrain from packing up until the class is officially over. No more of that infernal shuffling as we get close to the end time of class!
I have been using in-class review quizzes for some time now, but in various ways and off and on in various classes. After completing this study and reviewing the relevant literature, I’m now convinced more than ever in their usefulness and in leaving them ungraded. I recommend making stress-free, ungraded in-class review quizzes part of your teaching tool kit!
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Khanna, M. M. (2015). Ungraded pop quizzes: Test-enhanced learning without all the anxiety. Teaching of Psychology, 42, 174-178. doi: 10.1177/0098628315573144
Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2015). Using quizzing to assist student learning in the classroom: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Teaching of Psychology, 42, 87-92. doi: 10.1177/0098628314562685
Paul, R. W., & Elder, L. (2000). Critical thinking: Basic theory and instructional structures handbook. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Roediger, H. L., Smith, M. A., & Putnam, A. L. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In B. H. Ross (ed.), Psychology of learning and motivation. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.
Wickline, V. B., & Spektor, V. G. (2011). Practice (rather than graded) quizzes, with answers, may increase introductory psychology exam performance. Teaching of Psychology, 38, 98-101. doi: 10.1177/0098628311401580