Pedagogy and Pop Quizzes

I am going to work with gender-neutral pronouns in this blog post to refer to students and professors.  I have never used these pronouns before.  I am trying them in recognition that the world is changing and out of respect for colleagues that value a non-traditional approach to pronoun usage.  If you have some familiarity with these pronouns, kindly point out to me any errors I may be making or improvements in how I use them.

A significant issue that we encounter as TA’s is lack of pedagogical input into our classes.  We can complain about institutional hierarchies all we want, but we are hired to take some direction from professors.  With certain professors, TA’s can suggest changes and alternative approaches — and I have done this in the past — but in a few cases, professors have certain goals of their own, ways they would like to see these goals accomplished, and lack of time to debate the pedagogical issues.

Here I discuss the pros and cons of the pop quiz, a classroom activity that I must present to my students.  Names and course specifics have been changed to protect the innocent and placate the powerful (!).

For an undergraduate English course, the professor informed the class that there will be five quizzes during the semester.  These will all be “pop” or “surprise” quizzes.  Ze explained to the TA’s (I am one of four TA’s assisting the professor) that the purpose of the quizzes is to ensure students are keeping up with the reading; thus, students will see content-based questions.  The quizzes are also helpful, it has become apparent to me, as tools to align what TA’s are covering in seminars with what the professor is stressing in lectures. Furthermore, the quizzes assist TA’s in understanding what the professor considers important information for students to retain. I should note here that these quizzes do not represent a high degree of grade risk for the students; each quiz is worth a small part of the 10% Attendance portion of the course grade.  I believe, then, that the professor is applying the whip as gently as ze can to the students: pop quizzes may be stressful, but if they are worth very little, people can blow off a bad result or two. Continuing the harsh language of the real world, sometimes the ends justify the means.  If, for example, we wish to make “Literary Thinking Visible”, as Linkon suggests, we have greater chances of success in modelling and scaffolding if students read the text prior to arriving in class.  Frankly, I am of several minds about this, so I welcome your input (see end of the blog for my questions).

Here are questions from the first quiz on Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn.

Answer whichever five questions you feel most confident about.  If you answer all six, only the first five will be marked.

  1. With whom does Huck live at the outset of the novel?
  2. How does Huck’s father meet his end ?
  3. Name (or describe) one character (besides Huck, or Jim) who rides on the raft.
  4. Name the two grifters in the novel.
  5. Why do Jim and Huck plan to take their raft on the Ohio River at Cairo?
  6. What does Tom Sawyer reveal at the end of the novel?


When I saw these questions for the first time, I thought that my students may have difficulty with the quiz; I had geared my teaching towards theme rather than to specific aspects of the plot.  Indeed, the results indicate that most students had trouble.  Eight people received a grade of 0.  The class average was 1.5 marks out of 5.  See histogram.  (I have assembled a histogram, but I cannot figure out how to post it here, so I will send a group email. Sorry)

Several students indicated to me they had read for theme and found the the quiz difficult as a result. While I was speaking with a few individuals after class, however, one person revealed that ze had not yet read the novel, so ze had no idea about any of the quiz questions.  Thus, people may have received low grades for reasons besides reading for theme over content.  I do not know how many others did not read, or failed to finish, the novel.  I had not set out to undertake research into that question, and the students are not expecting me to ask them research questions (the seminar may not even be the right forum for that kind of formal research), so I will not pursue the matter further.  In the end, neither I nor the professor can completely control which students read and review the literature before the class.  What we can control is how we offer the material to the students during class.  We will be reading another long novel in the class, A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Prior to leading the two seminars we have allotted to Owen Meany, I will think about developing activities to help students retain plot details in addition to the theme work and other work I am doing (and have been prescribed to do).

After the test, I talked with a student that was upset and thinking of dropping the course.  I realized after about five minutes of talking that ze did not really want to drop the course and was getting plenty out of it.  After we weighed hir options together, and after ze spoke to the professor, ze decided to remain in the course.

I also spoke with the professor, asking hir if ze intended to ask similar kinds of questions on future quizzes.  Ze told me “yes”.  Armed with this information, I held a quiz postmortem with the class, asking their impressions and then coming to the conclusion together that everyone needs to pay closer attention to plot detail, character motivations, and even names of characters in the texts.  We ran through some example questions that could be expected on the second quiz.  Though I had not read Linkon’s ideas on modelling for the students at that point, I recognize now I was doing that in the class.  I believe that the modeling exercise will result in better results, not simply because we modeled how to approach this kind of quiz, but also because the students have experience with these kinds of quizzes (i.e. they should be able to leverage prior knowledge in test-taking).  They will adjust, I am confident, for the second quiz.

As I suspected and hoped, the results for the second quiz were better: seven students still receive a 0 grade, but the number of 5 grades jumped to 15.  The class average more than doubled to 3.2.  See histogram (to be included in above-mentioned email)

The professor will expect procedural knowledge demonstrated on both exams and the final essay. The midterm and final will have some further content testing in the multiple choice sections, but students will also be required to answer short essay questions to demonstrate how they can apply what they are learning.  The essay, of course, represents final proof of procedural knowledge gained in this specific course and during the university experience generally.

I would like to end this post by asking for some practical advice:

In your opinion, is it up to the professor/TA to find means to ensure students are reading? What are your thoughts on the pop quiz as a strategy?  If you have issues with the pop quiz, do you have some alternative strategies or activities to the pop quiz for encouraging students to read texts prior to class?

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3 Responses to Pedagogy and Pop Quizzes

  1. Tim McNeil says:

    Ultimately, I think we as instructors we need to create conditions that make reading preferable to not-reading. Pop quizzes are one way to encourage this, but it’s a bit of a putting-the-fear-of-god-into-them scenario.

    Some things I’ve used in the past include Kahoots (anonymous multiple choice quizzes with music. Think a cheesy version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), and asking students to write/share.

    To go meta, the environment needs to be supportive, and students need to be motivated to complete their reading. Maybe something like teaching students to annotate their texts or take notes, and then making pop quizzes open book would better foster the kind of learning practices that we’d like to see? Given a good ratio of time to questions, the notes/annotations would be helpful for finding the content necessary.

    Another concern about the questions is that they seem focused on recalling information. While we need active knowledge to perform any kind of analysis/synthesis/literary writing/unpacking, I’m not sure the questions as presented are completely in line with the outcomes of a literature course. In this case, isn’t the problem that we’re back to teaching content knowledge instead of strategic knowledge? Would a focus on strategic knowledge see a shift in student reading?

  2. fhalpern says:

    Hi Jon,
    I had a reaction similar to the one Tim describes in the last paragraph. The quizzes were notable to me for the way that they ask students simply to memorize facts about the book. According to Bloom’s taxonomy (which we’ll give out in a couple of weeks), you’ll see that this is the least sophisticated kind of knowledge students can have. You yourself mention that “The quizzes are also helpful . . . as tools to align what TA’s are covering in seminars with what the professor is stressing in lectures.” If that’s true you’re going to have to devote a lot of time simply to going over aspects of the plot and creating lists of characters’ names to memorize. But is that really what students need to be working on in section? Note: I’m not saying you should challenge the prof of this course. This is more things to keep in mind when you teach your own course.
    If you did want to keep to giving quizzes as opposed to other ways to motivate students, it’s possible to give a quiz–even a multiple choice quiz–that tests strategic knowledge but that also requires students to have read the text. Those open up other issues: students aren’t used to such quizzes and you have to teach how to answer questions that test on higher levels of thinking, but at least then you’re focusing on strategic knowledge rather than memorization and basic reading comprehension.


    • jonrozhon says:

      Yes, I know there are better ways; I sensed this from the beginning. In terms of “the quizzes are also helpful…” I was trying to accentuate the positive, as they say! Sometimes a person has to make something work in class that one does not necessarily believe in. For example, I feel that seeing the professor once a week for 75 minutes in a class of 100 is unfair for undergraduates, and I do not doubt that other instructors feel similarly, but that is the situation we find ourselves in. This kind of lecture arrangement is an institutional decision that we cannot do much about. Certainly, we can work to change the situation, but change does not happen overnight. So then we look for ways to make the lecture work better.

      Professor X started using “Top Hat” quiz software, for example, as one way to deal with larger classes. “Top Hat” is designed to be used for those big lectures, provides immediate feedback, and can be helpful to gauge things like prior knowledge, understanding of the course material, and readiness for tests. In terms of using quizzes to test strategic knowledge, I think “Top Hat” would work well for that. Because you can set it up quickly, use it in under 5 or 10 minutes, it is the sort of tool you can work with repetitively. Thus, managed well, it could be helpful for scaffolding.

      I am sure there are shortcomings to the “Top Hat” software, but it serves Prof X adequately as one instructional tool for the lecture theatre. Since my own TA class has 30 students, I will approach Professor X to ask about modelling “Top Hat” and trying it in the class; I will think about ways to use it for strategic knowledge. At the very least, it can give me an indication at the start of class how many people have actually read the text of the day…

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