The Power and Pomp of Pop Quizzes

By Patrick T. Randolph

1. Introduction

Let me make it clear from the start that it is no exaggeration to claim that announcing the term “pop quiz” before or during class does not elicit smiles and cheers from the students; but rather, it ushers in fear, anxiety, and the stressful rolling of eyes. However, if these pedagogical creatures are used as “peaceful pets” as opposed to “vicious guard dogs,” then students will find them useful, fun, and effective.  In this article, I will first briefly present three studies that focused on pop quizzes. Next, I will discuss how pop quizzes ought not to be used. I will, then, present four different kinds of pop quizzes I use for English vocabulary acquisition.
2. The Research
One might be surprised that there is more research on the benefits of pop quizzes than the average person might think. Neither time nor space will allow me to survey all the research; however, I will briefly touch on three studies that used pop quizzes with very favorable results.
Ruscio (2001) found that pop quizzes helped college students in four different psychology classes. These students were highly motivated by the pop quizzes, and they completed their reading assignments at significantly higher rates than previous students from the same classes. The combination of being motivated by the quizzes and doing the reading helped these students learn more and become more interested in the content.
A recent study conducted by Agrawal et al. (2021) looked at how pop quizzes helped undergraduate dental students. Their research showed that anonymous pop-quizzes (APQs) greatly helped the students understand and learn the content, and the APQs also helped the students clarify the practices and concepts in the field. According to Agrawal et al. (2021), “APQ approach helped us improve student preparedness, improved critical thinking skills among them, and facilitated the identification of problem areas and weaknesses that require further reinforcement for the better future outcome of higher education” (para. 18).
But what about using pop quizzes to help English language learners (ELLs)? Are they in any way useful? The answer is an emphatic “yes!” In 2017, I presented on the use of pop quizzes in my Head-to-Toe Method of Associations for Vocabulary Acquisition at Missouri University of Science and Technology. My research showed that students retained English lexical items at impressive rates by using frequent pop quizzes to enhance their use and understanding of words, phrases, and idioms (Randolph, 2017, slide 6). In fact, with the employment of these quizzes, which made students pay better attention in class and study more on their own, the average unannounced pop quiz grade for three English for credit university classes ranged anywhere from 90% to 98%. There were a total of 21 pop quizzes given that particular semester (N = 46).
3. How Not to Use Pop Quizzes
If we look at the reality of everyday life, we see that we live in a world of continuously unfolding pop quizzes. We encounter challenges that we cannot prepare for, but when we encounter these challenges, we do the best we can to solve them and that makes us stronger. In a sense, then, life is a series of pop quizzes, so we ought to celebrate them and not view them as obstacles or hindrances. However, throughout the years, I have seen pop quizzes used inappropriately and ineffectively. Let us take a brief look at how not to use these quizzes so that we can employ them correctly and make the most of these productive learning tools.
3.1 Do Not Use Pop Quizzes as Punishments
I often hear and I have seen teachers become upset with a class who has either not read the material or not mastered the concepts; and, as a consequence, they suddenly tell the students to take out a sheet of paper for a pop quiz on the topic. But, we must ask ourselves if such a reaction is any help to the students? In short, it is best not to use pop quizzes as punishments; but rather, they ought to be used as learning devices that will strengthen the students’ knowledge and skills while creating a healthy and trusting relationship between the teacher and the students.
3.2 Do Not Give Pop Quizzes During the Middle of Class
It is most productive to give pop quizzes at the beginning of class. The reason is simple. If students are anxiously expecting a pop quiz, then they will not be focused on the lesson. In addition, if the quiz is given at the beginning of class, there is a chance it can also be used as a learning device or a springboard for that day’s lesson.
3.3. Do Not Employ Pop Quizzes on Topics That Have Not Been Thoroughly Covered
Another common misuse of pop quizzes is that teachers give them when the students have not thoroughly grasped the topics. Let us take vocabulary as an example. If the lexical items have not been explained well enough or the students have not had time to use them properly, then it is best to wait until they develop a good understanding of meaning and use. Otherwise, there is really no point in quizzing the students. Quizzes should be given as learning tools that inspire confidence, build mastery, and foster insight (Agrawal et al., 2021; Randolph, 2017).
4. A Sampling of Four Pop Quizzes
Once pop quizzes become a frequent tool for learning vocabulary, they take on a whole new and refreshing way of building positive teacher-student relationships, and they build inspiring relationships with the vocabulary being studied. Pop quizzes become creative challenges as opposed to stress-causing agents of fear. Let us survey four kinds of pop quizzes: The first two are graded and the second two are ungraded.
4.1. Graded: Standard Written Quizzes
Each semester I tell the students that they will have seven or eight written pop quizzes for the vocabulary we study. So, these are “anticipated” pop quizzes. This announcement alone encourages the students to (1) study and review the terms frequently on their own; (2) pay better attention in class; and (3) use the terms on their own in order to become familiar with their meaning and use. For the vocabulary quizzes, I ask the students to define the terms using their own words. These are paraphrased definitions and not dictionary definitions. This helps the students own and personalize the vocabulary. I, then, ask for original example sentences where they use the terms correctly.  The pop quizzes are graded on definitions, correct examples, grammar, spelling, and pragmatics.
4.2 Graded: Creative Writing Pop Quizzes
Creative writing pop quizzes are inspiring because they encourage our ELLs to create their own stories, poems, or dialogues while learning to master the vocabulary items in authentic situations. Content and genre guidelines are set for each different kind of creative writing pop quiz. For example, I tell the students to use five to seven newly acquired vocabulary terms and three terms from the previous week. Next, I explain that they have to write a dialogue between two people that uses these terms. For instance, if two terms were “puzzled” and “shed light on,” then the dialogue might start like the following:
Zehra: Did you have a question? You look a bit puzzled.
Carlos: Yes, could you shed light on what we discussed in grammar class? I don’t
             get the present perfect.
These pop quizzes are scored by focusing on the proper use of the terms, grammar, spelling, and creativity.
4.3 Ungraded: Warm-Up Pop Quizzes Based on Gestures

Gesture-based pop quizzes are ungraded and can be employed as warm-ups before starting the main part of the lesson. For these quizzes, I stand in front of the students and create memorable and effective gestures or facial expressions that correspond with the meanings of the lexical items studied in class. It is best to use the same gestures and facial expressions that were used to first introduce the terms. Doing this helps reinforce the meaning through the repeated gesture-vocabulary connections. This, of course, also assumes that gestures and facial expressions are used in the encoding process. These short pop quizzes can be used for recently studied vocabulary or as a review of previously studied terms.
Next, the students call out the lexical items and their definitions that correspond to the gestures and/or the facial expressions. If time allows, the students can also offer original example sentences using these terms. This activity creates a nice flow and segue into the man part of the lesson and helps get the students prepared to learn, especially if they participate in doing the gestures.
Moreover, gesture-based pop quizzes are highly effective because students can experience visual and embodied representations of the vocabulary terms. This is particularly helpful for turning abstract terms into concrete representations via the physical gestures or facial expressions. For instance, the term “coherent” may seem abstract. However, by creating a gesture with one hand that demonstrates an order of things from left to right or from top to bottom, the “idea” of “organization” becomes tangible and visually understood; that is, this can “show organized thought.” The teacher can also make a facial expression that demonstrates a clear understanding of something and finish the gesture-facial expression-performance by saying, “Ah, I see.” Such actions and visual representations help the ELLs learn the terms at a deeper level, and they help the ELLs transfer the visual experience of the terms into their long-term memories.
4.4 Ungraded: Timed Pair Pop Quizzes
For these quizzes, I pair the students up and give them a list of 10-12 vocabulary items. One member of the pair reads each item and asks his/her partner to define the terms and give short, original example sentences. Then, the pairs switch roles. Four minutes are given for this part of the quiz. After they finish, they are challenged by being given two minutes to accomplish the same task. Although this may seem difficult, they can do it with focused attention and the thrill of competing against the clock.
The learning tool of repetition and the competition against the clock are very fruitful because they encourage the students to race against time while focusing on solidifying the meanings and mastering the uses of the vocabulary terms. This is effective, as the students both say and hear the terms multiple times within a limited timeframe.
5. Conclusion
Research on pop quizzes is increasing, and one common discovery is that they help students learn and retain the information (Agrawal et al., 2021; Randolph, 2017; Ruscio, 2001). In addition, pop quizzes are more “lifelike,” as most situations in our daily lives do not give us the chance to prepare for sudden challenges. Very few “life tests” are scheduled. Thus, the more pop quizzes that are used to help our ELLs study the language, the better they will understand and digest the necessary skills and material; and, the better we can prepare our ELLs for life. As we have seen in our survey of pop quizzes, they are not only effective, but they also elicit a real sense of excitement and a joy for learning. In addition, there is a positive element to being challenged in a constructive way, and I believe pop quizzes are the perfect tools that inspire the desire to meet this challenge.

Agrawal, N., Rathi, S., Gupta, N.D., Aggarwal, A., Garg, A.K., & Gupta, J. (2021). The use of anonymous pop-quizzes as an innovative teaching-learning tool to reinforce learning among undergraduate dental students. SRM Journal of Research in Dental Sciences, 12(2), 74-78. doi:10.4103/srmjrds.srmjrds_3_21
Randolph, P.T. (2017, May 19). Introducing Randolph’s Head-to-Toe Method of Associations for Vocabulary Acquisition [Invited presentation]. Wise ESL Symposium, Rolla, MO, United States.
Ruscio, R. (2001). Administering quizzes at random to increase students’ reading. Teaching of Psychology, 28(3), 204-206.

Patrick T. Randolph specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. Patrick has been awarded three “Best of TESOL Affiliates” (2015, 2018, and 2021). He has also received two “Best of CoTESOL Awards” for his 2017 and 2018 presentations on observation journals and creative writing. Recently, Patrick received the “Best Session Award” from MinneTESOL (2019-2021), and he has published New Ways in Teaching with Creative Writing (2020). Patrick lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; cat, Gable; and puppy, Bubbles, in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Image credit:

Fall 2023 - Volume 51, Number 2