How Can we Help our Students Love Quizzing? (Part 1)

How Can we Help our Students Love Quizzing? (Part 1)

By: Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

I (Megan) teach mostly Juniors and Seniors at Rhode Island College. But, I still start every class with a lesson on effective study strategies.  At Rhode Island College, many students commute to school and have jobs outside of school (and in the United States, recent census data suggest 71% of the 19.7 million undergraduate students work while in college), so making sure the time they dedicate to studying is effective is especially important. (And, what college student has too much free time, anyway?) The students seem to like this, and are interested to hear about ways to make their study time more effective and efficient.  Most of them enthusiastically take notes, and are excited to try the retrieval method I suggest. It is very similar to the methods we have blogged about in the past (e.g., Be Your Own Teacher: How to Study a Textbook), and based on the reaction from the /r/getStudying subReddit, it seems to be generally quite popular!

Yet over the semesters, at RIC and other institutions where I have taught, I have noticed the enthusiasm that cultivates at the beginning of the semester waning as we push further into the semester. At first, this surprised me. I’d wonder why my students did not fall in love with testing themselves. Why weren’t they recalling the information, making connections between different concepts from class, making connections between the concepts in my class to other classes, and connecting the concepts to real world examples? The scientist in me was perplexed.

My students didn’t seem to be practicing recall on their own as much as I wanted. But that certainly didn’t prevent them from getting a lot of retrieval practice in the classroom. As a teacher, I integrate recall of material directly into the class to help my students learn. For example, before an exam, we often play a review game where I split the class into two teams and they compete with each other answering questions. I also give my students surprise extra credit quizzes regularly. I present two or three questions – usually about how concepts are similar or different from one another and asking for novel examples – and students who are in class that day can write answers in their blue books (those little exam booklets typically used for essay exams). If they answer correctly, I give them extra credit points. In my opinion, this is almost as low-stakes as a test can get! We talk about the questions and answers in the next class, so students are getting feedback.

This simple exercise helps the class in many ways (1). The act of recalling the information is directly helping them learn, and there are many indirect effects as well: The extra credit quizzes encourage students to attend class (they never know when they might get extra credit), they have to keep up with the material and pay attention in class or they won’t know the answers to the quizzes (2), it gives students feedback about what they know and don’t know, and it gives me feedback about what students generally understand and where the class as a whole is struggling so that I can adjust my teaching methods. And that’s not even all the 10 benefits of testing (see picture, or go to the paper)! Plus, when I walk into the classroom with a stack of blue books, usually a symbol of the much hated essay exam, my students whisper “yessssss” in excitement. I realize the excitement is more about the extra credit opportunity than the fact that they get to practice recall, but any excitement associated with recall is welcome.

But even with all of the recall going on during class, I want my students to use effective study strategies on their own. Why would we want students to waste precious time reading the textbook over and over again, when we know that doesn’t produce learning?

Unfortunately, there’s hasn’t yet been a systematic empirical investigation into the reasons behind the lack of love for self-testing amongst students. Based on her own research and reading of the literature, as well as talking to students, Yana frequently includes the following slide in her cognitive psychology class when speculating on why students don’t self-test:

In our next post, we discuss how we overcome some of these barriers in our own classes.

(1) Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Cognition in Education (pp. 1-36). Oxford: Elsevier.

(2) Weinstein, Y., Gilmore, A. W., Szpunar, K. K., & McDermott, K. B. (2014). The role of test expectancy in the build-up of proactive interference in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1039-1048.