Quizzes are Better Than Tests
Every other week, I give my students a quiz. The quiz covers everything since the last quiz, except for things we’ve just learned. It goes like this:
Week 1: Learn some stuff.
Week 2: Learn some stuff, homework on Week 1, take a quiz on Week 1.
Week 3: Learn some stuff, homework on Week 2, no quiz.
Week 4: Learn some stuff, homework on Week 3, quiz on Weeks 1-3.
Week 5: Learn more stuff, etc., you get the picture.
The homework lags the content (credit to Henri Picciotto for this idea), quizzes take about 20 minutes, and I always include “Extra Credit” that go beyond the basic expectations of the course.
I like this way of doing things. Since I have the freedom to assess kids how I like, it’s been years since I’ve given something like a full-period test. I think it’s good for the kids. And yet somehow I feel a little guilty for not doing unit tests, and I’m not sure exactly why.
To be clear, I can totally defend my preferences. Frequent quizzing is good for learning. It’s practice, first of all, and coming a week or two after we’ve “finished” learning it. I get information before it’s too late, before we’ve moved on entirely from a skill.
I’ve written before about how I use wrong answers on quizzes to create little remediation lessons. This is an attempt to reframe what we think of as “feedback,” away from individual comments and towards whole-group responses to issues in learning. But this only really works for quizzes, though. Tests are simply too big—there’s too much to focus on, and so it’s hard (though not impossible) to find a clear focus for feedback.
The other thing about frequent assessment is it reduces the emotional stakes on any given day. You’re going to “bomb” a quiz at some point—there’s another one coming soon. If the whole class bombs it, no problem, I’ll give us another shot at it next week. No tears, fewer fears, but regular-yet-non-smothering accountability for learning. Not to mention that marking quizzes is less stressful for me than taking home a giant pile of tests.
Why do I feel guilty about not giving tests?
I recognize that tests are part of the common vocabulary of schooling. Am I making class “less serious” for not having tests? I don’t think so. But maybe that’s a part of schooling that my students aren’t getting to participate in. Tests can be a source of tears and stress. I’ve taken away the lows—have I also taken away the highs? Maybe I have, and maybe that’s OK. Still, there’s something lost.
To put it a different way, there’s a sense in which schools have their rituals and traditions. It’s true—I think I can improve on them by focusing on quizzing at the expense of tests. But what does that make me—a disrupter, on an incredibly small scale, of an American tradition of cramming for, failing, acing a math test?
Tests aren’t just about learning. They’re also something that we believe is good for you. But it’s not exactly that it’s good for learning the content—quizzes are certainly better for that. It’s that the entire ordeal is widely—not universally—considered a crucial experience. Summative tests are supposed to be formative experiences.
“Adult life is full of tests,” you can imagine someone saying. “How will they be ready to cope with a big presentation or project when they’re out of school? They need to experience it when they’re young, when there’s still time to learn.” In other words, the emotional stress of a test is the point.
But the assumption here is that life is full of tests, and I guess that’s also the question: is life more like a series of quizzes or tests? Does it feel more like cramming for a big performance or an ongoing series of little challenges that show who you are, and maybe what you still need to be? Is it both? Does it matter?
Well, I’m certainly not changing how I do assessment in the middle of the year. But it makes you think.