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Author: Janet Starks

This semester I stumbled on a creative teaching tool that surprised both me and my students. It turned out to be effective and enjoyable, and it was a quiz. I used the tool in a survey of church history course. Like most history courses, this one has lots of content and has tended to be lecture-heavy. I decided to set myself the goal of using as many different creative methods as I could and using at least one in each class. I was continually asking myself, “How can I teach this in a way other than lecturing?”

I hold to the philosophy in learning history that dates and details are much less significant than people and movements. This perspective was birthed when I finally realized that history was the stories of real people who, by their actions, shaped my life in our world. I don't require students to memorize dates to recite on a test and then promptly forget, but I do want them to know sequences and cause-effect relationships. I'm interested in their being able to connect past events to each other and to the present. For example, in the Church History survey course, it doesn't matter whether Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in 1440 or 1450, and it doesn't matter whether Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in 1517 or 1527. But students do need to know that Gutenberg's press was fully functional before Luther's theses were written and that the ability to print and distribute multiple copies was a significant factor in the relatively rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation.

Having said this, in a survey course that covers 2,000 years in 13 weeks, it is necessary for us to review names, dates, and events from time to time, and to find the gaps in student information and understanding. So, at the end of the first of five units I prepared a simple, 14-question objective quiz that included the main names and events we had covered. I needed to revisit the high points of the unit.

When I distributed paper copies of the quiz there were the usual groans, especially since no quizzes had been described in the syllabus or given in previous classes. However, when I started giving the instructions, the groaning stopped. Students were to complete the quiz working in pairs, and they could use their notes. I would not collect or grade the quizzes. Suddenly the classroom changed. Instead of complaining, there was animated conversation. Students lit into the project with enthusiasm, trying to guess the answers, scrolling through their notes to find the ones they didn't know, and reminding each other of details associated with the topics on the quiz. After a few minutes we reviewed the answers. There were cheers for correct answers and sighs for wrong ones, especially if students had disagreed with their partners on the answer. At the end they quickly totaled their scores and eagerly shared with their classmates how well they'd done.

I was amazed! Without fully thinking it through, I had discovered an enjoyable way to refresh the students' memories about the significant material in the unit—twice. They reviewed the material as they answered the questions, and then again when we corrected their answers.

On the spot, I labeled this activity the “unquiz.” The idea worked so well, we used an unquiz at the end of each of the next three units. Each of those quizzes contained between 15 and 20 questions (determined by how many I could fit on a single sheet of paper), and they were greeted with equal energy. At the end of the semester I asked students to complete an anonymous survey about the impact on learning of the various methods I had used; 65 percent of the class members said the unquiz had helped them learn.

Virtually all of us who teach agree on the need for assessment. It helps us know whether students have mastered the material and the skills associated with it. However, as tests grow in importance, more students struggle with test anxiety. For most students, some anxiety serves as a motivator to prepare; for others, test anxiety is crippling. Although brief objective quizzes are not necessarily good indicators of learning and usually measure only a student's ability to memorize and regurgitate, in this application they served as a refresher and a talking point without the influence of test anxiety. Students discovered for themselves what they didn't know rather than its being shown to them by a letter or numerical grade.

And so the unquiz will remain as part of my teaching toolbox. Like every other teaching tool, it will need to be used with care and not overused, but it seems worthy of repetition.

Contact Janet Starks at