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.

  • Richard Cassidy

    The Teaching Professor consistently raises interesting questions, promotes interest, and enhances learning via interaction and discussion around topics that challenge our thinking. These features are the foundation of a student-centred learning environment, and as Maryellen Weimer points out in her discussion on “Making the Pop Quiz More Positive”, we want students to be “motivated by the understanding that regular interaction with the material helps learning”.

    Maryellen's question “Does it make a difference if you reward good behaviour instead of penalizing poor behaviour?” is exactly the type of question that one might pose in a student-centred learning environment because it quickly leads us into a host of sub-questions that lead to several core principles of teaching and learning.

    Should we use marks as rewards? Or even, should we use marks at all? I taught for years before I recognized the hidden assumptions connected to marks. Assigning a mark seems to create a concrete reality that can be used to judge, sort, and reward. Marks definitely measure something, but what is this something? Marks hide my values and, the literature shows that marks are extremely poor predictors of future performance in academics and in life in general. However our institutions, and our students, are not going to permit us to suddenly drop the use of marks. But, should we not engage our students in a discussion about the limitations of the marks that we assign?

    Rewards and their connection to human motivation and behaviour is another interesting question. Authors such as Kohn, Willingham, and Jacobs have summarized sufficient research results to raise serious questions about how we use marks and rewards. Indeed, many of our standard procedures may actually work against our desired teaching goals. Extra marks will get more students into the class. But, what type of student does this attract? Are we using rewards to control the students or enhance learning? Many research results suggest that rewards can decrease interest and creativity. Is there some important learning activity in the class, such as group discussions/problem solving, that will not be obtained otherwise? Or do we just want them in class to listen to us? If we use extra marks for pop quizzes, we will attract some students. And it should be no surprise that the students will indicate they like the pop quizzes, but what does this mean in terms of self-centred deep learning?

    Does rephrasing the question to place emphasis on 'good behaviour' really change the reality of the situation. Certain students are still being rewarded for attendance and others are in effect being punished irrespective of the reasons why they might not be coming to class.

    What are the alternatives to marks and rewards? I must admit that I do not have any simple quick answers. Kohn, Willingham, and Jacobs are good starting points, and perhaps this is an area that might be explored further in the Teaching Professor?

    Jacobs, Charles S., (2009), Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.
    Kohn, Alfie, (1999), Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, Houghton Mifflin.
    Willingham, Daniel T., (2009), Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, Jossey-Bass.
    Richard Cassidy
    Professor Emeritus
    Chemistry Department
    University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon,
    Saskatchewan, S7N 5C9;
    Web page:  http://chem4823.usask.ca/cassidyr/