Reconsidering the Role of Quizzing in PBL

December 2, 2016
Drew Shrader

Drew Schrader

This piece will make the case for why we should consider more frequent quizzing in a PBL environment. The disclaimer to keep in mind is that the saying “what gets measured, matters” applies here. You will see strong pedagogical reasons for using regular recall quizzes to improve student learning, but we should not make the mistake of substituting performance on those assessments as our target for student learning.  I will be making the case for quizzes as primarily a tool for learning, not a measure of learning.  Our ultimate goal is deeper learning and our assessment priorities should reflect that. The quizzing ideas below presuppose an environment where student learning is contextualized in the pursuit of relevant and complex problems culminating in authentic performance products.

The following claims are based in large part on the wonderful book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

Quizzing Improves Recall

The act of trying to remember something reinforces it in our memory. Key to this concept is the common sense idea that learning stays with us better when we have to work at it.  The more the effort, the more retention.  Taking a quiz on new information when you have started to forget it is a great way to engage in what experts call “effortful retrieval” and helps build the connections in your brain that create long-term memory. The expression the authors use is “quizzing freezes the forgetting curve.” The forgetting curve is our rapid inability to remember details from something we have recently heard, read, or experienced. Our brains are designed to forget most of that information so we do not become overwhelmed remembering everything. Engaging in the effort to remember something when you have started to forget signals to your brain that this is a connection worth strengthening, helping to build a memory.

With that idea, we can rethink the purpose for giving our students quizzes. Rather than a “gotcha” for who did their homework or as a stick to study, we could strategically give students short quizzes as opportunities to try to recall key ideas we need them to commit to memory.

As an example, let’s say my students were doing a project on WWII. Having a clear understanding of the causes of WWII and ready access to that information would be important for critical thinking throughout the project. I could use quizzes to help build that.

Let’s assume “What were the causes of WWII?” was an early need-to-know that we learned about through a combination of small-group workshops, readings, and videos. To take advantage of the power of effortful retrieval, what I could do as facilitator is wait a day or two and then give students a brief quiz over the causes of WWII, maybe as an bell-ringer to start class. Because some time would have passed, students would naturally have started forgetting some of those reasons we had covered a day or two before and they would have to think hard to remember the details. While their scores might not be stellar, the learning benefit is that what students DO recall at this point will now be reinforced in their memory at a much more permanent level. Additionally, they will be alerted to the fact that they have started to forget those other causes. We could briefly review the ones they had forgotten and then move on.

The effort to recall those facts helped students learn them – and learn them more permanently than traditional study strategies like rereading notes –  but one treatment would not be enough. To further reinforce the causes, I could plan for an additional quiz perhaps a week or two later. Again, the quiz could be short and since we would have covered additional material, I might mix in questions about the causes of WWII with some new things they had more recently learned. As with before, I would be timing this quiz for when students had started to forget, and the point of the quiz would be to use that forgetting to engage in the effort to remember.

These quizzes could come at increasingly long intervals to provide that boost of effortful recall. Having these short quizzes include cumulative information from the course as the year goes on increases the challenge for students, which strengthens the learning even further. A thoughtful quizzing progression has the potential to solidify a key knowledge base for your students to engage in deeper, more critical thinking.

What about grading?

To make these assessments for learning rather than merely assessments of learning, we need to educate students, as well as ourselves and colleagues, about quizzing to learn. We also need adjust the way we grade these quizzes to reflect their status as learning opportunities.  In terms of grading, the above example should illustrate that we need to assign points for these quizzes with care. You may feel as though you need to provide some sort of point motivator to insure your students put forth effort on the quiz, but any points allocated ought to be kept to a minimum because we don’t necessarily expect students to perform well on these quizzes. We are explicitly looking for times when students have naturally started to forget because this provides a great time to strengthen their learning. We must be careful not to punish them grade wise for this opportunity to learn. Students will likely come to you with the sense that quizzes are for ranking and sorting, so you will need to explicitly educate them about the value of quizzing for retention. Over time, these conversations might allow you to forgo assigning points for the quizzes at all as students start to buy-in to the benefits they provide.

If retention weren’t enough here are a few other reasons why thoughtful quizzing for learning can be a boon for a well-designed PBL course:

Cultivating background knowledge

When critics claim PBL does not help students learn factual content, defenders like myself often reply “if students are engaged in critical thinking, they need to be thinking about something don’t they?” While true, we need to be careful not to take that statement to mean that as project designers we can safely focus on critical thinking and assume that the factual knowledge will come along for the ride. Quizzing can help avoid this assumption. If a teacher created a thoughtful quizzing progression to build foundational knowledge like the one described above, they would need to have a clear personal understanding of that important background knowledge and use that understanding to monitor the development of enabling knowledge during their projects. This would also help avoid the false debate over facts and application. While it is true that what matters most is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know, critical thinking does require ready access to key disciplinary facts and concepts. The clearer teachers are about critical enabling knowledge, the more we can support it and the deeper student application can be.

Guarding against “false knowing.”  Much of PBL involves students engaging in self-directed research and inquiry to answer important questions and solve problems. Seeking out their own answers to these questions develops skills they will use their entire lives and creates stronger ownership over learning, but they also need to know if what they have learned is right. Quizzing can create a form of “reality check” for students for their research, alerting them to misconceptions or gaps in their learning as well as highlighting flaws in their learning strategies.  This is a powerful use of our subject area expertise. Rather than trying to present students an organized, adult level understanding of a discipline, we can use that organized understanding to create “bumpers” for students to run into, helping them course correct as they question, seek, and synthesize.

Bonus! Appeasing the standardized test nay-sayers

Skip this one if it offends you – quizzing is plenty valuable for all the reasons above. One common critique PBL teachers have to respond to is “How are students going to perform on standardized assessments if they don’t get any practice with them?” While most NTN schools do as well or better on more traditional assessments as a byproduct of their real goals as a school, there is a bit of truth to the fact that testing and quizzing represent a genre all their own and that our students would better represent what they have learned on these assessments if they had some familiarity with the format. Borrowing questions or questions styles or design ideas from standardized testers can be a useful way to make your own quizzes strong – test designers are very knowledgeable in their own way – and also give students a bit of extra familiarity. If we use them as learning tools as described above, they may even find them fun! Parents and nervous district administrators might also be appeased by knowing students are getting this practice.

Quiz Time! 

 Let’s use a quick quiz to review and consolidate what we just read. Without looking back at the text, do your best to answer the following questions:

Why is quizzing useful for learning:

  1. Quizzing requires active recall which builds memory.
  2. Quizzing requires effort which builds memory.
  3. Quizzing alerts the learner to things they don’t understand.
  4. All of the above

When would be the best time for an initial quiz on new information?

  1. Immediately after the instruction while it is “fresh” in students’ memory.
  2. I don’t do quizzes because I’m into PBL.
  3. When enough time has passed so students are starting to forget.
  4. Unexpectedly to reveal who studied and who didn’t.

Which of the following best characterizes the relationship between facts and application:

  1. Application is what matters and education has been overly focused on factual recall.
  2. Critical thinking and application should be our aims, but they require ready access to accurate factual information.
  3. Students must master facts before considering application.
  4. Facts and application are only staying together for the sake of the kids.

Isn’t quizzing just “teaching to the test?”

  1. Yes, that’s why I do it as little as I can in my class.
  2. Yes, that’s why I do it as often as I can in my class.
  3. No, my quizzes are not related to information on standardized tests.
  4. I reject your distinction! Quizzing can usefully build memory of enabling factual knowledge that is also often represented in tests.

Want to really remember this? Send me an email or message me on Twitter and I’ll send you a NEW quiz a week from your message to help you further reinforce these ideas.

Answer Key:

4 3 2 4


Read more from Drew at Learning Habit.

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