But the devil is in the details, as in the specific combination of factors and conditions that produced the results. When I looked closely at this subset, I was amazed at the array of details that could potentially affect whether quizzes improve learning.
- What types of questions are used (multiple choice, short answer, etc.)?
- What’s the relationship between quiz questions and questions on the exam (same questions, similar questions, or completely different)?
- How many quizzes are given throughout the semester?
- When are the quizzes given—before content coverage or after? How soon after?
- Do students take the quizzes in class or online?
- Are the quizzes graded or ungraded? If graded, how much do they count?
- Is the lowest score dropped?
- What kind of feedback are students provided?
In addition to these design details, there are content variables derived from what’s being taught, the level at which it’s taught, the type of course, and the instructional method used to deliver it. And then there are student variables, such as their year in college and academic performance to date. In all likelihood, the classroom climate exerts some influence on the outcomes as well.
What this evidence tells us is that given a particular set of conditions, quizzes produce positive results, in most cases a range of them. And that gives us three things to consider.
First, based on studies done in our disciplines, quizzes are an evidence-based instructional strategy only in a general sense. If your course design details and teaching context aren’t the same as those in the study, you aren’t assured the same results.
Second, to be sure that your quizzes produce the desired results, you need evidence. You can conduct your own empirical analysis. One of the benefits of all these different studies is that they provide a range of different ways quiz performance can be analyzed. That will give you the best evidence, but you can also do something quasi-empirical. You can look at exam scores in sections with and without quiz scores. You can ask students how a course with quizzes affects their attendance, preparation, and study habits. Or, you can carefully, thoughtfully, and objectively observe how quizzes are affecting learning. What we need to stop doing is assuming that just because an instructional strategy has been studied and judged effective, we can use that same strategy and accrue the same benefits.
Finally, looking at a set of studies (whether on quizzing or a range of other instructional strategies) illustrates the profound importance of instructional design. So often, when we decide on an instructional approach, we just do it. Without much thought or purposeful decision-making, we come up with a way to use quizzes. And yet it’s those easy, seemingly minor decisions about the details that determine the outcome.
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