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Category: Teaching Strategies and Techniques

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It is well-known that reflection is a key to learning and retention. Our minds are not computer programs that can simply download information with complete fidelity. Rather, they build knowledge by blending prior content with new information. This process requires a pause in the delivery of new information for reflection to create the neural connections that constitute knowledge. Unfortunately, the traditional 50- to 75-minute lecture does not provide time for such reflection.

An ideal way to incorporate reflection into learning is with quizzing or gaming systems. These provide a way to call up and use the information just received, which is critical for moving it from short- to long-term memory. There are so many excellent systems available at little or no cost that an instructor can become overwhelmed by the choices. How is an instructor to choose among systems?

A good way to whittle down the options is to distinguish between gaming and quizzing. Systems tend to be pitched as one or the other, through in reality their features have converged to the point that the differences are less in functionality than in how they are used. Nevertheless, subtle distinctions remain.

Quizzing systems are generally designed for individual use, while gaming systems tend to be designed for group activities. Quiz results are generally intended to be private, or at least anonymous, whereas gaming results might be public (that is, within a class). This means that quizzing systems are generally intended for grading, whereas gaming systems are more often meant for ungraded practice. In general, practice and ungraded application of concepts lower student anxiety and often improve thinking—the obverse of what Daniel Pink (2009) famously noted: that external rewards, such as grades, actually diminish performance on complex tasks by restricting thought. Also, game participants’ ability to compare their scores engenders easygoing competition that gets students more invested in the outcome.

Finally, quizzing systems tend to be designed for information retrieval (e.g., how many carbon atoms a particular molecule contains), while gaming systems tend to be designed for applying information to novel situations—often complex environments that require multiple considerations and pieces of information to negotiate.

Choosing a system

Given their orientation toward straightforward information retrieval, quizzing systems are generally best for measuring how well students comprehend the information presented to them. This is good for formative assessment purposes. An instructor who wants to learn how well students understood a given reading can quiz them at the beginning of a class or online module. The instructor can also have students take pre-class quizzes on material about to be presented. Why would an instructor quiz students on material they have yet to learn? Such quizzes prime the learning pump by activating students’ prior knowledge of the class topic, making it easier for them to connect new material to that knowledge—a key for learning.

Quizzes can also test understanding of material covered in prior classes. Indeed, as Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski (2015) have shown, repeated assessment of the same material over time significantly improves retention. Instead of presenting material and testing students on it only once during the semester and then again on the final, returning to that same content every couple weeks helps to fix it in students’ memories. Finally, instructors can give students an exit quiz at the end of a class or an online module to determine how much of the content they understood. Doing so can prove invaluable, informing instructors that they need to review content again in the next class. Faculty often gauge apparent attention to measure student comprehension, but this is a poor measure as attention differs greatly from understanding. Brief quizzes do a much better job.

Gaming systems are more useful for practicing application. A logic instructor might teach a new logical function in a course or online module and then have students apply it to a variety of problems to learn its nuances. Gaming can also be used for more open-ended applications that ask students to connect different types of information. For instance, a political science instructor discussing the personalities of the Yalta Conference negotiators might ask students to pick movie or TV characters that closely match those personalities.

The lack of a grade connection with a game allows the instructor to foster healthy competition to get students invested in the game. Games usually feature leaderboards that keep running tallies of scores. Students can choose avatars and pseudonyms to disguise their identities as they watch themselves climb and descend the leaderboards. Were the instructor to project quiz grades to the class, students might get anxious. But when the outcome is a score not tied to a grade, students take a comparatively relaxed approach to the situation and often make public exclamations about their performance (e.g., “I was tied for second until the last question!”).


All learning management systems have built-in quizzing functions, and these are probably best to use when the instructor wants to preserve the grade because they are already connected to students’ grades. Outside systems need to be manually connected. But outside systems are often more user-friendly and feature-rich than inside ones, and they work better on mobile devices. This can make them better for face-to-face courses.

Quizlet is probably the most popular mobile quizzing system in education—and for good reason. Besides all the usual quizzing features, it works well as a self-testing platform for students to use outside of class. For instance, it allows instructors to upload an interactive image that opens dialogue boxes when students click different parts of it. These can even be digital flashcards bearing names or descriptions that prompt students to guess what is on the other side of the card. A plant biology instructor can upload an image of a plant that students click around to learn its different parts and how they work together. For this reason, Quizlet quizzes can be great study aids for a course.

Edpuzzle is an excellent system for adding quizzes and other interactions to videos. Instructors can create and upload videos or draw from such popular sources as YouTube, TED, National Geographic, and Khan Academy. Edpuzzle even features a repository of videos and interactions that instructors can use free of charge. Moreover, it has a grade book and performance analysis system that is helpful for measuring class performance.

Kahoot! has become the go-to system for educational gaming. It features a wide variety of game types for both individual and group play, and the mobile app is simple to use. This makes it best for most live-interaction purposes. Plus, the challenge mode allows instructors to assign students to play games outside of class.

Poll Everywhere was one of the first audience interaction systems, and while it lacks the functionality of other systems, its simplicity and real-time graphics updating make it ideal for basic audience response purposes. For those who use PowerPoints in their lectures, the system has a convenient ability to download polls as PowerPoint slides that can be inserted into presentations.

Whatever your purpose, a quizzing or gaming system will add interest and improve learning in your courses.


Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2015). Learning how to learn, Coursera.

Pink, D. (2009). The puzzle of motivation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en