Nobody likes a pop quiz…or at least, nobody likes to fail a pop quiz.

If you have students who habitually ace pop quizzes, well then, the words, "Put your books under your desk—we’re having a pop quiz," may be among their favorites in the English language. Most of the time, though? You’ll get a chorus of groans.

So what’s the deal? Are pop quizzes perfectly fair and efficient ways to assess student learning, or are they a mean-spirited "gotcha" tactic designed to punish students who may not have finished their homework?

John Jackson, a longtime giver of pop quizzes, poses this question thoughtfully for himself and other educators in his post called "The Ethics of the Pop Quiz" for the Chronicle of Higher Education. But what's the answer?

Reviews are mixed.


Some students and teachers point out that a pop quiz, which generally asks very simple questions, can be a breeze for anyone who has done the required reading or assignment in advance of class. This offers easy A’s or potential grade boosts to students who arrive prepared, while punishing those who don’t. And that, many believe, is perfectly fine.

Proponents also argue that the threat of potential pop quizzes can push students to complete coursework they may otherwise let slide. Knowing that there may be a quiz the next day is often a good incentive for students to just get the darned assignments done. Which makes for more prepared students, which makes for more productive class discussions and activities, which makes for better educations and happier everybodies. (Source)

Not fair!

But…not everyone is in favor of the pop quiz approach (surprise!).

The main problem for con-ers? Everyone has a difficult night or gets behind from time to time. And that means that a pop quiz at just the wrong moment can punish a student who has been otherwise top-notch.

Plus, pop quizzes take away a student’s ability to plan out his schedule in advance to assure preparedness for assessments. As student Michelle Banyan, writing for her high school newspaper, points out, "students deserve the opportunity to plan their workload based on a schedule. Planning comes with being informed of what needs to be accomplished in advance" (source).

Presumably, pop quizzes are given to see if students have, in fact, done what they have already been asked to do, which takes a little steam out of Banyan’s point. But we see what she’s getting at: grades are a student’s bread and butter. They know they need to perform well on assessments in order to receive good ones, and so they may invest their effort more diligently when a grade is at stake. A pop quiz doesn’t give them the necessary advance notice to put their best feet forward.

And so, the debate goes on.

(Doesn't it always?)

It’s In the Way That You Use It

Ultimately, most people seem to think that pop quizzes can be fair as long as they’re used appropriately; i.e., as a tool to help both teacher and student take the pulse of student learning.

Teachers can employ pop quizzes to determine how well students know the material they’ve been working with, what topics may need review prior to a test, or just to see if homework is getting done—and getting done right—on a regular basis. For students, a pop quiz can be a reassurance or a wake-up call, and both can be helpful in terms of letting them know where they stand in terms of understanding material and staying on track with assignments.

As long as pop quizzes don’t factor heavily into a student’s grade, you probably won't hear too much fuss about 'em.


For less surprising, but equally effective assessments, why not utilize Shmoop courses in your classroom?

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