Pop Quiz Hot Shot!

pop quiz

(photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bdunnette/184607940 )

I want to elaborate on an idea I blogged about a couple months ago. I gave my undergraduate students a pop-quiz toward the end of last semester. I know: pop quizzes are kind of unfair and there are those who believe they can give the classroom learning environment a punitive flavor. I am very sensitive to that, so I don’t typically give pop-quizzes. However, this quiz was designed to address the thinking that students are doing within the subject and the thinking they are doing about their learning and classroom presence. Let me tell you why and, more importantly, how.

Why did I give a pop quiz?

I believe that humans are competent compartmentalizers. I use this term in two ways. First, we are fairly efficient when it comes to managing all the things contemporary life throws at us. This is largely due to our tendency to place different pieces of information, different parts of our lives, and different responsibilities into different organizational categories or intellectual compartments. However, when does such compartmentalization become an obstacle to deep thinking and substantive learning? This leads to the second meaning of the term, which I draw from the field of psychology: “Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.” This second meaning speaks to the complexities of meaning making: managing new information and the need to bring it in alignment with existing world views, beliefs, values and assumptions. We often distort information and our interpretations of it, or rationalize, so as to maintain our existing schema. Dan Ariely speaks clearly and accessibly to this tendency in his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone- Especially Ourselves. To combat the problems of agenda driven compartmentalization, educators and scholars often talk about the importance of facilitating transfer of ideas, methods and insights across domains.

The discourse on transfer exists, in part, due to the pervasiveness of compartmental thinking. The AAC&U, for example, advances the notion that a substantive general education cultivates the skills, dispositions and insights necessary to thrive as a global citizen and well-rounded thinkers. Although this topic is well beyond the scope of this blog post, there is a well established body of scholarship on the theoretical and applied benefits of helping students explicate, examine and apply their emerging skills within and across academic disciplines. With this backdrop functioning within my thinking, I provided an opportunity for students to assess the extent to which they were committed to substantive intellectual engagement in the classroom as individuals and as members of a community.

My goals for the Pop Quiz:

  1. Remind students that they have a responsibility to their peers: seriously considering their points of view, comments, questions, insights. Doing so requires connecting via blog comments or twitter or in person; taking notes; studying and contextualizing all relevant comments as we collectively work through content issues and problems.
  2. Recall and reflect on anchor activities: there are certain learning experiences that I frame as anchors – core experiences/processes/models/concepts/etc. that ground our work; things we can continually revisit to help frame our thinking and work.
  3. The critically engaged student is open-minded and exercises discernible judgment: a healthy skepticism is essential to informed decision-making; however, we must give all ideas their fair voice and evaluation before we judge. One of the highest forms of respect in a classroom is to actively listen to one’s peers. It’s like saying: “Your point is important and valuable, so I want to understand what you are saying.”
  4. Recall our learning agreement: We entered into a learning contract that they helped craft at the beginning of the term. The aforementioned points were all part of the agreement.

How did I administer the pop quiz? 

When students entered, I instructed them to get out a piece of paper. This was unique for our classroom context because we typically use white boards and google docs. I told them that we were having a pop quiz and there would be three questions. I was actually surprised that no one protested.

Question #1:“One of your peers (insert name) gave an excellent explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

Question #2: Last class, (insert student name) asked a question about citing sources. Specifically, she asked a question about in-text citations and hyperlinks. What was her question and what was my reply?

Question #3: This course is built on two organizing questions. What are they and how has your work thus far functioned within them?

You can use class notes, but access no other resources (e.g. – course website)


This pop quiz turned out to be a great success even though all students failed. The value manifested in reminding students of our course contract, the value of anchor activities, and the importance of one’s peers as potential resources for direction and insight. Moreover, it reminded them that it is important to take notes. This quiz was not weighted heavily, so poor performance did not cause anxiety as far as their grades are concerned. I wanted to craft a significant learning experience.

When we think of our courses as journey, I must ask myself: What type of journey do I wish for students to have? What am I doing to help the journey be meaningful? Of course, it’s their journey, but it is my responsibility to help craft the types of learning experiences that further the goals and objectives of the course: as emerging thinkers within a discipline and as students who are developing general education skills, dispositions and insights.

I might try this again in a graduate course I’m teaching this semester. I’m curious what, if anything, will be different.