Frequent Tests Can Enhance College Learning

From the New York Times — November 20, 2013 (edited for length)


Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, scientists reported Wednesday.

Psychologists have known for almost a century that altering the timing of tests can affect performance. In the past decade, they have shown that taking a test — say, writing down all you can remember from a studied prose passage — can deepen the memory of that passage better than further study.

On the first day of their Psych 301 course in fall 2011, James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling — who have taught it jointly for years — instructed all 901 students to bring a laptop to class, if they had one (they all did).

The students then learned why: They would be taking a short quiz in each subsequent class on their computer. The quizzes would be short and personalized — seven questions that the entire class would answer, and one tailored to each student, usually a question from another quiz that he or she got wrong.

In place of a final exam, grades were based on cumulative quiz scores.

The questions “weren’t impossible, as long as you did the reading and paid attention in class, but there were definitely some ‘thinkers,” said one student.

By the end of the course the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams — scoring 10 percent higher on a subset of 17 questions that appeared on both classes’ tests. The quizzed group also got slightly higher grades, the study found.

By forcing the students to stay current in the reading and pay attention in class, the quizzes also taught them a fundamental lesson about how to study, the authors said.

In the middle of the semester, attendance usually averages about 60 percent, Dr. Pennebaker said, adding: “In this quiz class it was 90 percent. If you know you’ve got a quiz, you have to show up.”