Follow this winning strategy to test your students’ knowledge effectively

Good quizzes take time to construct, but students sometimes (often?) complete them very quickly and without much serious thought. And I get it: the temptation to blithely click through each question and swiftly reach the end in order to gain some free time must seem irresistible – particularly when the stakes are low and the day is long. However, the obvious consequence is unreliable data, which makes it hard to form credible inferences about what students do and don’t know. It can all become a bit pointless.

How students perform on quizzes – and tests in general – is strongly correlated with levels of motivation. This is something Graham Nuthall explores in The Hidden Lives of Learners. He recalls observing a maths test on a warm afternoon and that there were clearly students in the room ‘who cared a great deal about trying to get all the answers right and there were those who couldn’t care less.’ The headline is clear: ‘Tests only become measures of student ability or achievement to the extent that the students are committed to the value of school and to the importance in their lives of getting good grades.’

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t quiz. That’d be daft. But it does mean that we probably need to think carefully about how we quiz.

Tell students why

It’s worth over-communicating the purpose and benefits of quizzing. Most students undoubtedly quite like the instant gratification of achieving a decent score, but I don’t believe many are particularly bothered about getting a poor one. And that’s no bad thing: quizzes work well when the stakes are low. The trouble is, it’s easy for students to conflate low stakes with low value. So, how do we convince them otherwise?

Quizzing helps to make students smarter

As a first step, talk to them about what psychologists call the testing effect. Put simply, we tend to believe we know more than we actually do. However, regular low-stakes testing helps to break this illusion and also enhances our ability to remember and swiftly recall more of the information we want. Put simply, quizzing helps to make students smarter and increases their chances of future success – a persuasive message to convey.

How to quiz

I think shorter quizzes are better than longer ones. Five carefully constructed questions are more likely to focus student attention than, say, 15 or 20. I also think highlighting the time that students should spend on each question is worthwhile. Inevitably, there’ll be those who whizz through regardless of what you say. However, some students won’t.

Download this

A quiz on energetics for the 11–14 age group as MS Word or pdf, and teacher notes as MS Word or pdf. Or get it on Socrative: SOC-57282540


A quiz on energetics for the 11–14 age group from the Education in Chemistry website:

I’ve been teaching for over 15 years and I’m still surprised by how much procedural guidance students need, but won’t necessarily ask for. My advice here is to make three things explicit. Firstly, tell them to read each question carefully and pause before committing to an answer. Next, emphasise the importance of making educated guesses. This is a good way of encouraging students to think hard and, crucially, implicitly signals that they should answer all the questions. And finally, if this is an option on the quizzing platform you use, ask students to check their answers before they hit the submit button – silly mistakes are as easy to make as typos.

Taking plenty of time (emphasis on plenty) to discuss answers and common misconceptions is a good idea. For example, asking students why a particular answer is incorrect is a great way of highlighting and then deconstructing misconceptions. Equally, asking students to explain why one of their answers is correct can be powerful and provides an ideal basis for rich conversations about how facts are embedded within ‘a network of logically interconnected ideas’ (Nuthall’s words). Of course, discussions of this nature can be challenging because learning is such an inconveniently messy process. However, my firm advice is to be patient because, over time, you’ll see the benefits and so will your students.

Do fewer quizzes

Finally, I think doing fewer quizzes may not be a bad thing. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve found that creating good ones from scratch can be really time consuming. In part, this is because they should always be desirably difficult – not too easy and not too hard. Hitting the right ‘level’ requires work. There will always be ones online or those made by colleagues that you can adapt, although this also takes time. And, on that note, please do take a look at Daisy Christodoulou’s posts on the construction of quizzes.