Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Joys of Quizzing

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Now, I have to clarify; the joys associated with quizzing are felt primarily by me, the teacher, and less so by my students. However, I strongly believe that, even in programs which do not require grades or testing, quizzes are of great benefit to both the teacher and the student. Moreover, I confess (but don’t tell my French teacher) that I wish I could have more opportunities to take quizzes in my own language class.

The Obvious (and Not So Obvious) Benefits

We all know that regular quizzing serves a useful purpose in our classes. Most obviously, it shows teachers what students have retained (at least in the short term) from their most recent lessons. Tests can also highlight areas in which further revision is needed. If students don’t “get” something, a test is an easy way, and in the case of large classes or reticent students, perhaps the only way, for teachers to find out. Quizzes can also give students a sense of satisfaction when they do well on a quiz because a passing grade offers tangible proof that they are advancing in their linguistic development.

However, in my time as a French student, I have also come to realize that there is another benefit to quizzes: they force students to study and (hopefully) remember what is taught. I am a fairly lazy student, in spite of my best intentions. I sometimes neglect my homework and I don’t make it to class as often as I should. However, if I knew that I would be quizzed, I believe it would motivate me to work a little bit harder. I might be lazy, but I am also somewhat competitive. Knowing that my efforts would be given a number would make me more committed to my French lessons. Based on several highly unscientific surveys I have conducted of my own students, I believe I am not alone in my desire for assessment.

We Have to Speak?

Regardless of the “popularity” of quizzing, I think it behooves teachers to shake things up as much as possible. Giving the same old gap-fills and multiple choice quizzes chapter after chapter can get dull quickly. In addition, there are some students who are born test-takers; they know just how to excel on any kind of traditional test you throw at them regardless of their language abilities. The trouble is that, although these tests are easier to grade (and who wants to lug home more papers to grade?), they don’t really reflect how we use language in real communication.

Instead of the tried (and tried and tried) traditional tests, I have been incorporating a lot of spoken quizzes into my testing repertoire. For example, I have just finished teaching a unit on the past tense with my Pre-Intermediate class. On Monday, they are all expecting to take an oral quiz. I will call them up to my desk one at a time (the rest of the class will be otherwise occupied and not paying attention) and give them 5 base verbs that I have chosen randomly from the list at the back of their book. They have 1 minute to make 5 sentences (or less if they are very clever) in the past tense. They will be given a score from 1 – 4 for each verb they use.

1 = The student tried unsuccessfully to make a sentence.
2 = The student didn’t form the past tense correctly.
3 = The student formed the past tense correctly but there was a problem with meaning or pronunciation.
4 = Perfect!

This kind of oral quizzing can also work well for a variety of other grammar structures when students interact in pairs. For instance, if students have just finished a lesson on modals for asking permission, you can have two students come up to your desk and have a conversation in which they take turns asking each other for permission based on a variety of random situations you present them with. (“You are the student and your partner is the teacher. Ask him if you can leave class early today.”) Keep in mind that the “random” part is key; if students know exactly what you will ask them, they will memorize beautiful speeches that don’t demonstrate what they can do spontaneously. This kind of quizzing is quick (if I limit my students, I can get through the entire class in under 20 minutes) and easy to grade (it is done on the spot – no papers to drag home).

I should warn you, however, that the first time you threaten to give your students a spoken quiz they will groan like they are dying. Be prepared and be strong! Ultimately, they will acknowledge that this is a much more realistic version grammar use, and many will even come to prefer it to more traditional forms of testing.


Comment from Zelda Jones
May 19, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Ms. Jones,

Thank you for sharing your grammar oral quizzing exercise. I will use this with my student.

Comment from Nick Jaworski
May 20, 2010 at 5:28 am

I really disagree on this. I don’t think quizzing or testing is very beneficial and I think it does more harm than good.

I think, unless class sizes are really big, teachers should know their students well enough to judge what they have and have not retained. Why test if they can talk about the past when you can just ask students to relate a favorite childhood memory? This takes the pressure off as it’s a normal activity and not a test.

Students obsess over grades and see grades as the goal. They lose the focus of learning just to learn. It sucks a lot of the joy and motivation from it. Students don’t attach importance to anything unless it’s “going to be on the test.”

Exams aren’t indicative of anything. Students cram for exams and so what you see in the exam is not a true reflection of what has been retained. Pop quizzes are just as useless. Either the student knows it or they don’t. The quizz will only serve to punish those who don’t know.

Sure, a few students are happy to get good grades, but for most it is depressing and demotivating to get low scores.

As for being a motivator to study, I think that’s a horrible reason to give a quiz. It’s purely extrinsic motivation which will only reduce intrinsic motivation. Students should be motivated by their interests, inspiring teachers, engaging course materials,etc. A quiz is the last thing I would want to use as a motivator.

I’m really against the testing method. You are asking them five random verbs. Why? How does that show what they know? How does that reflect real language use? Have you ever been asked to make five sentences using random words in the past? What’s the value of assigning numbers? Either I’m perfect or deficient. I’m sure most students will come up as deficient. How much more useful would an actual project or task be where English was used and then the teacher gave instructive feedback on what was good and what needs improvement rather than a number that surely will not help them improve and most likely only make them feel like they’re not good enough.

Comment from Tamara
May 20, 2010 at 7:11 am

I agree that assessment should not be a punitive or demoralizing experience for students. Ideally, the prompts should be created so that students are able to demonstrate what they have learned. If many students are failing the tests, they are probably too difficult. I like your idea of having students tell a story about their favorite childhood memory. I would be interested to know if you ever give feedback (written? oral?) to the students. It seems that even if a grade is not assigned at the end of the story, assessment is taking place as long as feedback is being offered. In other words, it seems to me that you are administering a kind of informal quiz.
However, I have to disagree that “teachers should know their students well enough to judge what they have and have not retained.” Depending on the home culture of the students we are teaching, students may or may not feel comfortable asking questions or demonstrating when they don’t understand something. I would also argue that there are different levels of language learning. For example, obviously, learning the simple past forms or irregular verbs comes before correctly using them in conversation. In my experience, if students can demonstrate that they have memorized the simple past forms when that is the only demand being put on them, they are one step closer to being able to incorporate them into a conversation when they are not only thinking of the simple past verb, but also content, other grammar, pronunciation and a myriad of other concerns that worry students about conversation. In other words, I believe quizzing can help break the learning process down into several manageable and attainable steps which help students to feel more motivated. (Incidentally, my students did very well on the quiz I described. Only a few got less than 100 percent, and all passed. They clearly had studied their past tense verbs! No one appeared overly distraught or scarred by the experience.)
Furthermore, I have been repeatedly asked by students for quizzes and focused assessments. Quite simply, students often want to know how they are doing in the class. I know that as a French student, I find it very difficult to gauge my own progress. Quizzing is simply one way of formalizing assessment and feedback. Furthermore, many programs require teachers to submit grades at the end of the semester. Including quiz grades among grades for participation and other work can help present a balanced picture of a student’s abilities.
I strongly believe the teacher is in control of whether the testing experience is disheartening or encouraging. Creating realistic, communicative assessments can give students (and program administrators, if this is your reality) a clear picture of what they can do and what they can be expected to do.

Comment from 福山市 英会話
May 23, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I agree totally, in Japan everything is in the form of written tests, I think some oral test/quizes would do a lot of good.

Comment from Tamara
May 23, 2010 at 11:19 pm

I agree! Moreover, with the addition of the oral section to the TOEFL iBT, it seems teachers may be doing students who need to improve their TOEFL scores a disservice if they limit themselves to written testing alone.

Comment from LUIS
May 29, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hi everybody, I really thank you for sharing your experiences and ideas used in your classroom, it’ll be helful for many teachers who visit the website.
Students need something challenging and their brains are absorbing knowledge. this is not entirely motivating but most students make an effort to prove that they know the language. in my opinion This is a good exercise.

Comment from Katy
June 18, 2010 at 6:39 am


Thank you for this! EXTREMELY helpful. Experience working with adult ELL’s and college ELL’s has shown me that students DO appreciate being tested/quizzed in a variety of approaches because it enables learners of all types to show what they know, not only to instructors, but to themselves.

Comment from Katy
June 18, 2010 at 6:40 am

Forgive the misuse and abuse of apostrophes. Haven’t had nearly enough coffee this rainy morning. 🙂

Comment from Tamara
June 20, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I totally agree! (About the testing and the importance of coffee in the morning! :))

Leave a comment on this post