At the end of July, one of our team members is off to explore new horizons. She has told me not to worry: she’ll be taking quizzes with her and will “be using them for the rest of [her] career”.
Quizzing, mainly in the form of homework quizzes and starter quizzes, forms a key part of our practice.
Quite simply, I ask pupils a short series of questions, get them to answer them from memory, and then I mark the answers as a class.
Surely this is what teachers have been doing for millennia? Can it really be that simple? Yes and yes.
However, like many effective techniques, quizzing is deceptive in its simplicity. In our experience, success with this method seems to come down to three factors: what you ask, how you ask it, and how pupils complete quizzes.
There are a variety of reasons why I choose to open every lesson with a starter quiz. First and foremost, it is vital recall practice. Quick and easy recall of subject knowledge is key to allow pupils the mental space they need to construct complex arguments.
One of the main methods to achieve such fluency and to cement subject knowledge is through regularly practising recall.
This also serves to emphasise the fact that revision should not be the ‘final push’ in the last few weeks before an exam; quizzes are revision and revision should be long term.
These quizzes also serve as excellent formative information for teachers. With a series of carefully selected and grouped questions, I can easily ascertain pupils’ grasp of core concepts and decide whether students’ understanding needs a quick tweak, whether concepts need to be re-explained, or whether I will need to pause my lesson and reteach something in depth before moving on.
Finally, a well-written quiz gives my pupils a chance to quickly feel success.
I can remember first introducing quizzes to a bottom set year 9 class. They hatedtheir first one and got very few correct answers.
In their next lesson, I deliberately included some of the questions from the previous quiz. I can vividly remember an exchange I had with one pupil:
“…but Miss, we had this one before.”
“Have we? You should know the answer then.”
Cue furious writing. There were no instant full marks, but I was surprised to find that group began to actively look forward to the quiz, knowing that, when they came into a history lesson, they would probably get something right within the first five minutes.
Quizzes at the beginning of lessons are a fantastic opportunity to recap content from previous lessons, weeks, topics, or even years.
When I first started using them (helped by the fact that my wonderful other half is a programmer), I used a program to generate my quizzes.
Said program had a ‘quiz focus’ from a topic I selected, and then randomly selected four other questions from other topics. Other teachers often have slide formats which follow a specific structure, such as “One from last lesson, one from last topic, and one from last year.”
I think both of these approaches are excellent for teachers who are using quizzing for the first time or who find it difficult to write effective questions or to vary question types.
However, I believe that, in order to use quizzes as a responsive and formative tool, teachers should eventually move away from the formulaic and towards a more nuanced approach.
I don’t use spreadsheets any more and have very little structure in terms of where I get my questions from; I ask between seven and ten, they are grouped by topic, and some will come from previous topics.
However, they are different for each class, reflecting areas I know they have found difficult or which I am aware they haven’t covered in a while. I have only been able to achieve this through years of practice and a detailed knowledge of my classes.
Writing good quiz questions is a balance between gaining useful formative information, ensuring effective recall, and instilling confidence.
When written badly, they ingrain misconceptions, give very little formative information, and use up a disproportionate amount of lesson time.
I use three guiding principles to help me avoid these pitfalls:
All questions should have a short answer; if pupils are answering in more than one sentence, it’s too much.
All questions should have a clear answer and should have very few correct options. You should have already written the answers. Open questions open the door to a huge amount of variation, reducing the quality of information you receive.
It should be difficult for pupils to guess the correct answer. Multiple choice questions are perfectly valid, but I avoid whole MCQ quizzes or whole True/False quizzes.
In order for pupils to get the benefit from these quizzes, I believe that they should answer the questions from memory, they should try every question, and they should learn from any errors they make.
However, when I first introduced quizzes, we saw pupils trying to do the exact opposite: they would try to sneakily look through their notes to find the correct answers, they would leave multiple questions blank and, when marking their answers, some pupils would switch between normal pen and green pen (which we use for marking) to correct any wrong answers and make it look as though they had achieved full marks (I have seen some truly James Bond-esque attempts to conceal blue ink in ‘green’ pens!)
Eventually, we concluded that all of these issues stemmed from one issue: pupils were so afraid of getting things wrong, that they would do everything in their power to either not do so, or not have to confront the fact that they had.
Getting pupils to complete quizzes in the most effective way ultimately appears to stem from creating a culture of error within your classroom. This is no mean feat.
I highly recommend people like Doug Lemov (of Teach Like a Champion fame) who has written extensively about it.
I have mainly tried to achieve this through vigilance, encouragement, and the almost constant use of one of my not-so-catchy catchphrases: “Give every question a go. It doesn’t matter if you get it wrong; the worst thing that can possibly happen is that you have to correct it.”
3 steps to writing effective starter quizzes
Start with a structured approach, but adapt as you get to know your classes.
Write short answer, ‘tight’ questions which pupils can’t easily guess.
Build a culture of error.
Becky Sayers (‘The Passionately Boring Teacher’), is head of humanities in a 11-16 secondary school in Wiltshire. Follow her on Twitter at @MissSayers1.
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