Academic Poll: Pop Quiz, Hotshot

Tuesday is a heavy teaching day for me– I’m in lab from 9-4, basically– so here’s something to occupy the time. Oh, no! It’s a pop quiz:

(In case the phrase is an American idiom, a “pop quiz” refers to a short test given in class with no advance warning.)

This was inspired by Dermot O’Brien at Inside Higher Ed, who reports on taking his first quiz as a science student. The general topic of quizzes is one that generates a fair bit of heat, though, so I thought I’d see what my readers think of it.

My quiz policy as of a year or so ago was to give many short in-class quizzes, roughly one per week (I generally got in nine in a ten-week term), announced one class in advance. The quizzes were about ten minutes each, and consisted of either five conceptual multiple-choice questions or one problem taken verbatim from the homework. I kept the five highest grades for each student.

This struck a pretty good balance, I think. It let me see how the students did under more or less exam conditions. Taking the problems directly from the homework provided some incentive to do all the homework, without forcing me to grade all the homework. Announcing them one class in advance cut out the complaining that I always got regarding pop quizzes, and dropping the lowest four grades removed the need for make-up quizzes– anyone who missed enough classes to use up their dropped grades had bigger problems than taking a zero for a single quiz grade.

In the last year or so, we’ve moved to using WebAssign for homework, and I’ve stopped doing in-class quizzes as a result. The online system provides at least as much incentive for doing the homework, without adding to my grading burden, and doesn’t require me to give up class time. The one thing it loses is the closed-book test condition, which I think is a bit of a problem– everybody is acing the WebAssign homework, but those are open-book, and good WebAssign grades don’t necessarily translate to good test grades.

So, what do you think of quizzes?

Comments

  1. #1 mac
    February 2, 2010

    Quizzes are ok, weekly homework (hard homework) is better. If the homework is complicated enough, you screen for cheating too – students will not independently come up with the same answers, and it is very hard to copy someone’s homework and make it look different.

    My third year lecturer in HEP, Classical mechanics and Thermodynamics did it like that. I have never learned as much in any other single course as I did in each of those.

  2. #2 mac
    February 2, 2010

    Oops, forgot to add – I tended to do very well at pop quizzes, but several of my classmates dealt very poorly with the pressure, and typically got very poor grades. I suspect this isn’t that rare, either. That’s why I’m not more strongly in favour of them.

  3. #3 Alex
    February 2, 2010

    I have heard that at some schools the freshman physics class has no midterms or homework, just a short in-class quiz every week and a final exam. I have toyed with the idea of doing that, but I’d have to reconfigure…

  4. #4 Andre
    February 2, 2010

    My organic chemistry professor used to give pop exams. I loved that. It’s an excellent way to teach organic chemistry (or many other complex subjects) because it’s better to learn as you go along than it is to cram the night before a test.

    Of course, many students didn’t see it that way. Whenever there was even a rumor of a test the next day, the library would be crammed with students who studying all night, just to find out there was no test the next morning.

  5. #5 William
    February 2, 2010

    From a student’s perspective, pop quizzes can be confidence building and help to buffer grades against less successful exam performance.

    Obviously they can end up doing the exact opposite as well, but even for students doing poorly, it has to be better than heading into a midterm or final without either some understanding of their own capabilities or grade status.

  6. #6 Janne
    February 2, 2010

    We had pop quizzes in our initial 3+3-month math courses. Thing is, they didn’t affect our grade in any way. They were explicitly there for us to get feedback on how well we were (not) doing, and for the teachers to get a handle on what parts the students understood and what parts needed further repetition and clarification.

    Keep the quiz, lose the grade.

  7. #7 CCPhysicist
    February 2, 2010

    I use more frequent hour exams, which add up to about the same amount of class time as short quizzes. I think a lot of it depends on the classroom quiz/exam security conditions (number and density of students).

  8. #8 Lowell
    February 2, 2010

    I teach High School…but in my second year IB Chemistry class, I’ve instituted pop quizzes this year. I have a standing policy that I will give pop quizzes whenever I want about any material, from this year to last fall. They are all six points, and I drop a few of the lowest.

    Students are definitely benefiting from them. And announcing that as a general rule, there will be pop quizzes, has eliminated any complaining.

  9. #9 Harvey Craft
    October 19, 2010

    Pop quizzes are a violation of best practice.Specifically, “Don’t test what you haven’t taught.”
    Pop quizzes are often based on material that students have not received adequate instruction. Pop quizzes are remnants of the past when instructional practices were often aimed at developing responsibility. They are perpetuated by teachers who do what was done to them. Pop quizzes are a type of what is known as “gotcha teaching.”

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