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Few words trigger greater anxiety in students than “We’re going to have a quiz today.” Most of us can remember that feeling of being unprepared when a pop quiz was announced. What most of us don’t realize, including many teachers, is how important a role quizzes can play in the learning process.

The principle is simple. When we are first trying to learn something new, neural networks in our brains are activated. We find some existing neural network (prior knowledge) to hook it into. When we remember something we’ve learned, we reactivate that neural network. The more often we reactivate a network, the stronger the connections among neurons become. So, learning something well often requires reactivating it many times. If we don’t, the information is lost.

Effortful retrieval, as when we try to teach a concept or information to someone else, or when we have to retrieve information for a quiz is a powerful way to rehearse the information and strengthen those connections.

Recent research at Washington University in St. Louis reminds us that multiple-choice tests (as many quizzes are constructed) can be used both to assess learning as well as to continue the learning process. In fact, every assessment opportunity can and should be a learning opportunity, a chance to apply knowledge, elaborate on it, explore it in new contexts, engage in higher-order thinking with it.

The research article counsels against trick questions and questions where the challenge is figuring out the construction of a question. Questions like these usually have answers like “all of the above” or “none of the above” or “A and B but not C.” There may be a place and time for these kinds of mental gymnastics (the study of Venn Diagrams perhaps), but they are not generally conducive to either assessing or fostering learning.

One of the study’s recommendations for creating good multiple-choice questions is to: “Create questions that engage ‘real world’ cognitive processes. To truly test abilities, questions must be structured so correct answers require use of the specific cognitive processes necessary to address similar problems in the real world. Questions that require higher-order thinking will enhance learning and improve future performance.” This advice is a great reminder of how important the assessment process is in learning by providing real-world analogies and problems.

Perhaps if teachers called it “retrieval practice,” and if students understood the value of that practice, those Friday morning announcements wouldn’t be so tense … “OK, class. We’re not going to have a quiz today. What we’re going to next is retrieval practice.”

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