Why Pop Quizzes Are the Devil
Everyone hates them, and statistics show they are lousy educational tools, so why do they still exist?
By Heather Ware, Bowling Green State University
“Alright class, put away your books and pull out a sheet of paper. Time for a pop quiz!”
Everyone knows the frustration that comes with these words. Your chest tightens as you resign yourself to the 0/10 that you’re about to receive, and you feel your middle finger instinctively attempting to rise. It’s an experience that nearly every student dreads, but it’s also one that everyone has been forced to suffer through.
Everyone has had at least one professor handing out pop quizzes like cyanide-flavored candy on Halloween. But who do they actually help? Studies have shown that pop quizzes don’t make students better prepared or more attentive to the reading material, and there is no reason to be surprised by that fact.
Before getting into the studies and statistics of it all, just look at the issue logically. Pop quizzes are sporadic evaluations of the work you’ve done for a class, and the professor is under no obligation to tell you when they might happen. In fact, the entire point of a pop quiz is to catch you off guard and see if you’ve been studying. Not only is that a sociopathic approach to education, but it would never fly if it happened to professors.
Teachers lead busy lives, just like everyone else, and they may not always be at the top of their game. Imagine a professor walking into their 8:00am lecture only to find out that, surprise, they have been selected for a random evaluation on the day that they were going to phone it in and read from their PowerPoint. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter if that professor has been prepared for every single other day, because that one class is the moment of inspection. It’s clearly an unfair situation for the professor, and yet it doesn’t seem so bad when it happens to students.
In college, there is the constant refrain that “School is a full time job,” and that each hour in class should be matched by 3 hours of studying; it’s also all but implied that you’ll need to sign away the rights to your firstborn’s soul if you want to get a passing grade in stats, etc. This makes it okay to surprise collegiate learners with pop quizzes because, hey, What else are they doing?
As it turns out, college students have responsibilities outside of their classes. The average undergrad works 10-15 hours per week, and presumably more than that if they are paying for a car, an apartment or, god forbid, their education. Then add in an internship, because you can be sure that nobody will hire you without some relevant experience in your field. All these factors mean that college students can expect to be looking at a roughly 60-80-hour workweek, and this is only if they’re shut-ins that don’t join any clubs or organizations. Pop quizzes are a professor’s way of telling you that you had damn well better prioritize your general education Biology course or your ass is poaceae.
With these impossible expectations in mind, it seems inescapable that pop quizzes would do more harm than good. When the Department of Psychology at Missouri Western State University investigated the effectiveness of pop quizzes, they actually found that the nasty little surprises not only did nothing to help teach the students (other than the lesson that life is cruel), but they actually terrified students so deeply that it became harder for them to learn.
According to the researchers, “Without fair warning, participants will have higher anxiety levels, which can interfere with their performance and lead to lower quiz grades.”
Surprise tests were not only doing nothing to keep students at their best, but they were so fundamentally frightening that they lowered test scores.
Perhaps the most disturbing part? Many teachers know that pop quizzes will negatively skew the results. In the world of teaching, it’s a well-known fact that people, shockingly, tend to generate pretty low test scores when they have evaluations sprung up on them without warning. In light of this, surprise quizzes are more insidious than frustrating nuisances; they can unfairly sink the grades of well-intentioned students, despite their best efforts. But, the real kicker here is that teachers genuinely think that they’re helping their students.
Despite what people will tell you about your Political Science professor, teachers generally want what’s best for their students. And why wouldn’t they? Everyone grows up with pop quizzes, meaning your teachers likely learned, just like you’re learning, that they at least keep students on their toes, and just because your teacher is wrong doesn’t mean that their heart is in the wrong place.
So before you start rioting outside of your math department with signs of “No examination without notification,” don’t demonize your teachers for doing what they genuinely think is right. Have conversations with them and talk about how pop quizzes may not actually be helping you learn the material. And if worse comes to worst, and your professor simply won’t listen to reason or fervent begging, then you know just where to go.