How to Use Mastery Quizzing to Improve Student Learning:
Advice from NCAT's Redesign Scholars

Quizzing is an effective tool that compels students to review material. Used by many teachers, in a variety of disciplines, from the primary grades through graduate school, this tool is perhaps the most universally recognized way to get students to prepare for class. We have found that web-based quizzing can be an effective and efficient pedagogical tool when used appropriately and a major contributor to improved student learning.

What follows is a summary of what we believe to be the most effective ways to use quizzing.

  • Quizzes should be required rather than voluntary.

If students do not have to take quizzes, many of them will not bother if only because students do not like the idea of being evaluated. If students do not take the quizzes, they cannot benefit from the feedback that tells them what aspects of their learning are incorrect.

  • Quizzes should be treated as an interactive exercise rather than an evaluation.

In addition to reducing the anxiety associated with evaluation, this encourages students to use the quizzes as an index of what they need to study.

  • Students should be allowed—in fact, encouraged—to take quizzes repeatedly so that they can master the material.

Consistent with the idea that the quiz is a learning tool rather than an evaluation tool, repeated attempts facilitate student mastery of the material. They should be encouraged to take quizzes as often as necessary to demonstrate their mastery of the material.

  • The highest grade; not the first, most recent or average grade, should be accepted as evidence of ability.

If students are graded on their first attempt, they see the quiz as an evaluation rather than a learning tool. If the quiz grade is based on the most recent score, there may be a disincentive to continue to take the quiz (to practice) after an acceptable grade has been achieved. If grades are based on an average grade, students are not likely to take the quiz repeatedly, if only because a bad score can dramatically reduce their chances of doing well.

  • Quizzes should be low stakes.

The point value associated with taking quizzes should be less than that associated with other evaluative tools (exams, papers, etc.). This reduces the stressfulness of quizzing, making a quiz less like an evaluation and more like an opportunity to gain feedback on what students need to study more carefully.

  • Students should have the opportunity to see how many and which questions they answered (in)correctly immediately after completing each quiz.

Consistent with the importance of immediacy of reinforcement, this allows students to see how they did even as they remember why they answered questions as they did.

  • Ideally, for each question answered incorrectly, feedback should include information on where to turn to find the correct answer.

This may be in the form of an indication of which page to turn to, or, better, a link to a web-based image of the page(s) to review. The advantage of the web-based link is that it makes the process of quizzing more interactive, and less like a study tool.

  • Item selection should be randomized to make it harder for students to cheat.

If every student sees the same quiz items in the same order, students will compare notes and prepare answers to the questions rather than understanding the material. For the same reasons, there should be several different versions of each quiz item.

  • Quizzes should be due frequently.

In keeping with the idea that massed practice is less effective than spacing learning throughout the semester, quizzes should be due on a regular basis (once, twice or three times a week) throughout the semester, not just before exams.

Quiz Questions

  • Order of questions

The order of the questions (in the same order as material is covered within the text or randomly arranged) is unrelated to the efficacy of quizzing. Instructors who prefer to make their quizzes more difficult by randomly arranging the order of questions should be encouraged to do so.

  • Number of questions

The number of questions that should appear on a quiz should be based on what the course instructors consider to be appropriate for the class. We have found that quizzes with somewhere between 15 and 25 items work well. These 15-25 items should be drawn from a quiz pool of 100-200 questions per quiz assignment to ensure that students are taking different quizzes with each attempt.

  • Multiple-choice questions

When using multiple-choice questions, where possible (i.e., the question does not have all of the above, A and B or other similar answers as options) the order of the answers should be scrambled. This makes it harder for students to focus on the answer order and tends to focus them on what the correct answer is.

  • Short-answer questions

Because spelling is important when answering short-answer questions, students may understand the concept but answer incorrectly. We discourage the use of short-answer questions in quizzing unless spelling is a part of the course learning objectives (e.g., foreign languages.)

  • Essay questions

Essay questions may be appropriate for quizzing but should be used sparingly, if only because of the time and effort required to grade them.

Publisher Test Banks

Most publishing companies provide test banks in conjunction with their textbooks. Often, answers provide guided feedback linked to the textbook—e.g., students can click and see a PDF file of a page they need to study. Including all items provided by the publisher without reviewing them is not a good idea, if only because many of the items are not good questions. Some are inconsistent with course goals; others may not be important enough to be included. Instructors need to screen questions from publisher test banks before including them in quizzes.

NCAT Redesign Scholars are available to show new institutions how to select items from publisher test banks.