Quizzing isn’t just about assessment. It also helps build retention and strengthen recall.
Quizzes are an essential component of any online course. And by “quizzes,” I mean something distinctly different from a midterm or final exam. The purpose of exams is usually to assess learner understanding, quizzes can be viewed as more of a study aid—something to help learners practice for exams.
However, like any aspect of your course, quizzes must be structured and thoughtful if they are to have any value. And, like any aspect of your course, some methods will be better for learners than others. Here are seven ways you can improve your quizzes and help your learners achieve better outcomes as a result.
1. Immediate feedback.
The longer learners wait between taking a quiz and reviewing their results the less likely they are to retain the correct answer. On the other hand, providing learners immediate feedback on their answers helps cement knowledge.
I notice this most frequently when I’m reviewing vocabulary for a language. If I’m struggling to remember a word, I run the danger of confusing the correct word with a wrong but related word (i.e. apple for avocado). The longer it takes for me to receive feedback about my word choice, the more likely it is that the incorrect word will stay in my brain, hampering my ability to remember the correct answer.
This leaching effect can persist, even after I receive the correct answer. Furthermore, if I review a list of incorrect answers all at once, I’m less likely to focus on each answer individually. All the wrong vocabulary words blur together, and I finish the quiz feeling more confused than when I began.
Immediate feedback helps purge the incorrect answer and focuses attention on correct one. This is why most language learners have better luck memorizing vocabulary from flash cards rather than off a list. The flash card allows for immediate, discrete feedback in a way that other review models don’t.
2. Study guides.
When your learners reach the end of their quiz, offer review suggestions based on their results. For instance, if one of your learners answered a significant number of answers pertaining to a specific module incorrectly, you could add a note recommending the review that section. Or you could refine your suggestions to the specific question and provide an explanation for why their answer was incorrect.
Of course, you can also positively reinforce correct answers by telling learners why their answer was correct. As an example, let’s say you’re offering a quiz on early American history and one of the questions looks like this:
Who was Alexander Hamilton?
A. The First U.S. President
B. The First U.S. Secretary of State
C. The First U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
D. The First U.S. Vice President
If a learner answers B, you could offer a short text that says “Incorrect: Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. Read unit 8 paragraphs 6–12 for more information.” But, if the learner answers C, you could offer a text reading “Correct: Alexander Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington from 1789–1795.”
The former helps direct learners toward material for review, the latter reinforces the correct answer while providing additional information.
3. Avoid true/false.
Everyone knows true/false questions are the easiest. Not only does the wording of these questions tend to be overly simplistic, but learners have a 50/50 chance of answering them correctly, even if they haven’t mastered the material.
Furthermore, attempts to make true/false quizzes more difficult are often counterproductive, as when the answer relies on a particularly close reading of the question. If you have phrased a question in such a way that it can be easily misread, your learners are likely to become frustrated with the quiz. Your questions should be designed to instruct learners and test their knowledge, not trick them.
4. Use different question types.
Quizzes can come in different formats, including multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay. The type of quiz you use will depend on the subject matter, but varying the style keeps learners from zoning out and helps assess different levels of understanding.
For instance, multiple choice quizzes are usually easier than short-answer, because learners only have to recognize the correct answer off a list rather than supply it themselves. However, multiple choice questions have the advantage of allowing teachers to test for very specific information. What they lack in difficulty they can make up in volume and focus.
That said, you don’t have to limit your quizzes to multiple choice or short-answer questions. One of the great benefits of online learning is their ability to incorporate rich questions and answers. That means you can use images in a mix-and-match quiz, or accept video or audio responses to certain quiz questions. Dynamic quizzes that employ multiple kinds of media are more likely to build memory retention than traditional text-based varieties.
5. Quiz frequently.
Frequent, short quizzes will do more for your students than longer, rarer ones. Quizzes are only partially about testing learner knowledge. One of their other primary purposes is to build retention. Just as immediate feedback helps learners remember correct answers, reviewing information shortly after learning it helps build recall.
So, if you’re debating between offering a 3–5-question quiz at the end of every section or a 15–20-question quiz at the end of each chapter, choose the former.
6. Allow repetitions.
Repetition helps learners retain information. Given that, it makes sense to allow learners to repeat quizzes. They will almost certainly score higher on the re-take, but they will also have learned that information more thoroughly. The chance to score higher and improve their grade also encourages learners to stick with a lesson, rather than accept a poor score.
If you’re worried that allowing learners to repeat a quiz will impact the integrity of your course, you can either make them not-for credit or weight them very lightly. If your course includes twenty modules, and each module includes a quiz, and the quizzes are worth a total of 20% of the final grade of the course, then each quiz is only worth 1%. Cumulatively, the quizzes are worth enough to motivate learners to take them, but individually the repetition effect is more likely to improve learning than bias the course outcomes.
7. Incorporate gamification.
Game elements can make learning a more positive experience by turning difficult material into a challenge to be overcome. This makes gamification a psychological tool with some powerful potential. In education, a wrong answer is often perceived by the learner as a failure. After repeated wrong answers, learners can begin to doubt their abilities and lose confidence.
However, if you think about many classic games, many are not built to allow immediate success. On the contrary, a game that is easy to win isn’t very fun to play. Instead, these games demand repetition while also offering feedback about success. Learners can feel as though they are progressing and improving, and that builds confidence.
Quizzes don’t have to be a chore.
Adult learners are more likely to view quizzes positively than K–12 learners. While school students are often taking compulsory classes, adult learners are usually self-directed. They’re motivated to learn, and eager to put their knowledge to the test.
Quizzes help learners put knowledge to use. Why not let them?