Two words with the capacity to make even grown-ups shudder. The surprise quiz is the classroom scourge of the reluctant and the unprepared, one of the most powerful and dreaded weapons in a teacher’s arsenal. As a form of discipline, it’s hard to beat. But how useful is the quiz as an educational tool?
Very useful, as it turns out – in specific situations. In recent years there has been a slew of research on the effectiveness of quizzes as a study technique. One in-depth study by cognitive psychologists Cindy Wooldridge and Yana Weinstein examined the power of quizzes to boost a phenomenon called transfer of learning. Put simply, transfer of learning (sometimes referred to just as “transfer”) describes the application of previously learned knowledge to a new task or problem.
In the realm of education, transfer of learning attempts to give students abilities or knowledge that can be later applied to real-life situations: for example, a painter’s estimation of how much paint is required to cover a wall through the application of geometry. In order for this transfer to occur, Wooldridge and Weinstein posit, three conditions must be met:
- Recognition that this is a situation in which prior knowledge could be useful.
- Successful recollection of prior knowledge.
- Successful application of the prior knowledge to the new situation.
In their research, Wooldridge and Weinstein found that for remembering specific bits of information, quizzing was a far more effective memory tool than simply reading. So if you quiz students on the flight patterns of an albatross, they are more likely to recall that information and apply it to different scenarios in a test further down the track.
Where quizzing appears to work less effectively is in the later recollection of related information. If students are asked to study an entire chapter, but are only quizzed on one page, their transfer of learning will improve for that page but not necessarily for the chapter as a whole. This flies in the face of the common assumption that quizzing specific knowledge will trigger the recollection of other related knowledge.
Quizzing is an especially powerful tool when it comes to self-guided study. A Purdue University study found that students who spent a quarter of their time reading information and the rest taking quizzes performed better than students who spent all of their study time reading – despite the latter group believing they had learned more than their peers.
Similarly, a 2010 report in Science determined that students who were quizzed during study scored three times higher on language tests than those who took no practice exams. Researchers believe the practice quizzes acted as a sort of trial and error, helping students learn which mnemonic devices and memory techniques worked best before attending the final exam. Further, practice quizzes allow students to determine which subject areas are the hardest to master, thereby allowing them to allocate the most time and effort to more difficult material.
Though practice exams are an effective study technique, few students seem eager to make use of them – perhaps due to the stigma surrounding the dreaded classroom pop quiz. But quizzing doesn’t have to be traumatic: it can be as simple and unstructured as asking a few extra questions of your class each period. Sorry, terrified students – but when it comes to memory retrieval and academic performance, quizzes really are your best friend.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.