MJ's Take On Pop-Quizzes

By: Michael Johnson

It’s early Tuesday morning. First period is about to begin as you eagerly await the bell signifying the start of your seven-to-ten-hour day. Having stayed up late doing homework the previous night, you are exhausted. The bell rings, and with heavy eyelids you look to the board to see your teacher. He or she announces, “I will be giving you a graded assessment on what we have learned from lessons five and six.” Your palms start to sweat, your pulse and blood pressure sky-rocket, and thus ensues the worst nightmare of any student: a pop-quiz. These assessments can vary in their design and purpose, so allow me to clarify. I consider a pop-quiz to be an examination of which the student had no prior knowledge or warning. Now, the first question that comes to mind at the arrival of such an unfortunate reality should be, “Does this assessment fairly assess your knowledge of the topic at hand?” In medical school do they teach you open heart surgery and then in one to two business days hand you the scalpel and scissors and say, “You’re up, kid”? Short answer: no, and the same thinking should be applied in high school education. If you work tirelessly to get a high average in a class and one pop-quiz arrives and tarnishes that record, then what was the point of trying in the first place? The only hope of ace-ing such an assignment is either A, somehow remembering obscure details from previous classes or readings, or B, working magic. Because most Gilman students do not dabble in witchcraft and/or wizardry, this leaves only option A.

Now some might retort, “Yeah, but the quiz shows that you’ve been paying attention in class.” Humans, however, are gifted with incredibly short attention spans. According to a recent study conducted by Microsoft, mankind cannot stay focused or have a clear train of thought for more than eight seconds. Considering the famously clueless goldfish can think straight for nine seconds—according that same study—, confidence that a teenage student can absorb information for an hour and ten minutes drops significantly. Unless the teacher gives an incredibly easy pop-quiz, which is rarely the case, even those who are extremely attentive during class can fare  the same as those who are not.

I do, however, recognize the underlying intentions for giving a pop-quiz: that primarily, as science teacher Mr. Cody Miles explains, “a teacher is attempting to ensure that the students are kind of keeping pace and keeping active in their studies so that you could have that recall information ready at any point.” Nonetheless, Mr. Miles strays from these assessments and offers a different and perhaps more effective route to assessing a student’s knowledge. “When it comes to the best way students learn and retain information, there is a book that’s called Make it Stick; there’s four tools that [the book] discuss[es] that students can use to basically help you with that  … maintaining of proper information attainment. The first one … is just self quizzing in general. Instead of having a pop-quiz, you could have a practice quiz.” According to Miles, these self-assessments may be superior to pop-quizzes in aiding student retainment of  knowledge, a crucial objective in any class.

An additional alternative to the traditional pop-quiz is, as Mr. Miles does, giving “daily morning quizzes, and the kids know that they will have a daily morning quiz. They don’t necessarily know what it will directly be on, but it will be on something that we’ve covered.” Having experienced a similar practice in some of my classes, I can say I better comprehend and retain information as a result of these regular examinations than I do taking an assessment with no prior warning. Indeed, Mr. Miles notes “studies have shown …  that if you give frequent, low-stake quizzes … those type of activities have shown to significantly increase a student’s information retention and knowledge mastery.” Thus, not only are pop-quizzes inherently stressful examinations, but also there are better substitutes. After cross-examining this topic, I maintain that one conclusion is apparent: the classic pop-quiz does not properly aid the student.