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Reading Quizzes: Why They Work

For Those Who Teach Quizzes and Exams

Reading Quizzes: Why They Work

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The body of evidence supporting the effectiveness of regular quizzes on assigned readings continues to grow. They’ve been shown to raise exam scores in courses from different disciplines, at two- and four-year institutions and with varying quiz logistics (online and in class, for example). It’s important to note that the impact on exam scores is not dramatic. The study referenced here cites three earlier studies that made similar use of reading quizzes and all four report exam scores increased 2–5 percent.

Teaching Professor Blog What’s particularly encouraging about this well-designed study was the palatable set of quiz features that garnered these positive results. The daily quizzes occurred in six quarters of an introductory biology course taught at a community college. They were online, consisted of multiple-choice questions, students used their books and notes to answer the questions, they counted for 10 percent of the course grade, and were graded electronically. And that set of design features resulted in a 4.9 percent increase in exam scores in a study that did a good job of controlling extraneous variables that could have influenced the results.

With data accumulating, it’s interesting to conjecture about what’s causing these positive effects. Authors of this study propose three possible explanations with the first one being the easiest and most obvious. It’s the reason that professors regularly give but which mostly falls on deaf ears. Coming to class prepared, even minimally prepared, makes what happens during class more meaningful. If students have interacted with the content, even if they are only looking up answers, that first encounter greases the learning skids. The unresolved empirical question is whether students who are exposed to these types of activities figure out that coming to class prepared is worth the effort and start doing so.

A second possibility that might explain improved exam scores relates to test anxiety, something experienced to varying degree by most students. Quizzes, as they are commonly used, end up being low-stakes testing experiences. They don’t count for all that much in terms of the overall course grade. That reduces anxiety and/or gives students plenty of opportunities to practice dealing with exam stress. It likely also builds confidence. Students get used to the kind of questions being asked. They discover that they can find or figure out the right answer. The frequency and familiarity of the testing process prepares them to deal with the higher stakes exams.

Finally, there is the well-established benefit of what’s called the testing-effect. The more students encounter course content in test questions, the more times they must retrieve what they are learning. Test questions work better than just re-reading or “going over” the content because they force the learner to come up with the answers—to find them or to figure them out—and the more often that happens the easier the information is to find.

Any or all of those reasons may help explain why reading quizzes pretty consistently improve exam scores. Quizzing has another benefit, less directly linked to improved exam scores, but still very important. It helps students develop those college-level reading skills that a lot of them don’t have. Knowing how to read at the college level can be learned theoretically and that knowledge matters, but it requires practice to move one’s reading skills to the next level.

Why is it so difficult to get most students to regularly do the reading? Does our teaching reinforce students’ belief they can get by without reading? Some of them are attached to that belief because they don’t like to read, aren’t very good at it, or find the text boring or difficult. But can students hear the content from us, only read immediately before the exam, and still get a decent grade?

I’m not sure how well quizzes convey the lesson students most need to learn. Reading is an essential skill, one that will be used across a lifetime. Avid readers that most of us are, I wonder if we don’t take its obvious importance too much for granted.

Reference: Pape- Lindstron, Eddy, S., and Freeman, S. (2018). Reading quizzes improve exam scores for community college students. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 17 (2), 8.

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