February 4th, 2010

Making the Pop Quiz More Positive


There’s something about the unannounced quiz that’s awfully punitive, probably reinforced by the way many instructors use them. Pop quizzes occur when there aren’t many students in class or when the class doesn’t appear to be well-prepared. They do get more students coming to class having done the reading but students are preparing because there may be a quiz—that’s different from daily preparation motivated by the understanding that regular interaction with the material helps learning.

I like the makeover B. Michael Thorne gives pop quizzes. Beginning with a name change, he transforms them into something more positive and constructive. His pop quizzes are known as extra-credit exercises (and we all know how in love students are with extra credit). His quizzes are still unannounced and still cover material students will be expected to know for the exams, but they reward students who are prepared and don’t punish those who aren’t. Generally given about once a week, these quizzes are worth one point, and you either get the point or you don’t. Quizzes amount to less than 4 percent of the total points available in the class, and you can ace the course without getting any of this extra credit. Despite being worth a modest amount of points, the quizzes are still enough to bump some students up to the next grade level.

This approach to quizzing got “points” from Thorne’s students. In response to the “what-did-you-like-best-about-this-course” questions, almost 25 percent of his students listed the extra-credit exercise.

Maybe I like the makeover because it reminds me of an approach to attendance I borrowed from a colleague. Rather than penalizing those students who don’t come to class, reward those who do. In my case, I took attendance on about 10 unannounced days during the course (typically Fridays, days after a test, or days when few students showed up), and students present on those days got two bonus points.

Does it make a difference if you reward good behavior instead of penalizing poor behavior? I don’t know, but it does make for a more positive classroom environment.

Reference: Thorne, B. M. (2000). Extra credit exercise: A painless pop quiz. Teaching of Psychology, 27 (3), 204-5.