How to boost learning with simple quizzes

Improve memory retention with regular quizzing.

Improving memory with quizzes header image

The power of simple quizzes

Can a simple quiz dramatically improve learning? The short answer is yes. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s demonstrate it.

To begin this article, I’ll ask you five different questions about legendary musicians. You probably won’t know the answers to these questions unless you’re a regular subscriber to Rolling Stone.

It’s okay. As you read, keep those questions in mind because the answers are staggered throughout the article. At the end, we’ll quiz you again.

Ready? Take the quiz.

Bo Diddley was nicknamed “The Originator” because he influenced a host of acts, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Parliament Funkadelic.

There's one great thing about school

I hated school. I found it difficult at almost every grade level and I never quite fit in. I was smart enough, but I never had a strong enough reason to follow through with my homework.

I scoffed at the idea that school would help me find my place in society and was never convinced it could help me earn a living.

So I fought against it, rebelled, and as a result, I struggled.

Eventually, I got my high school diploma but only months after everyone else got theirs. Ironically, I lost my diploma during a move so it’s toilet paper by now.

I didn’t want to give up on school, so I tried community college. But I dropped out all 3 times I enrolled. So much for that.

But thinking back now, school wasn’t that bad. I learned some trivial things, sure, but I got to be around girls and meet some good people. Come to think of it, there WAS something about school that I always looked forward to.


That’s right. Call me strange, but I actually enjoyed taking tests. It was a chance to show my teachers that despite my attitude, I could hold my own. It also proved that I could study hard and get an instant payoff for my effort. I thrived off the pressure and high stakes involved with test taking.

So imagine my satisfaction after reading chapter 2 of Make It Stick, a book about how to make learning “stick” around long enough to be useful. Here, the authors cite research on:

  1. How taking tests strengthens memory, and

  2. How more tests ensure long-term memory retention

Eric Clapton, master guitarist, on his nickname: "My nickname of 'Slowhand' came from Giorgio Gomelsky. He coined it as a good pun. He kept saying I was a fast player, so he put together the slow handclap phrase into Slowhand as a play on words".

The testing effect

As a study habit, simply re-reading the same thing repeatedly and expecting better results might explain this Chinese proverb:

“If you read a text for a thousand times, it will be understood naturally.”

Or, how it was once translated to me:

“If you read a book a thousand times, you’re bound to understand it.”

Who’s got time to read a book a thousand times?

The testing effect, or retrieval-practice effect (leave it to researchers to give it a catchy name), is practicing retrieval as a method for retaining information or strengthening memory. In other words, the more you make an effort to remember something, the better your long-term memory will be for that topic or subject.

Practicing retrieval also proves more effective than repeated exposure to the same information. For example, re-reading the same passages over and over again won’t stick as much as taking a quiz or participating in some sort of active simulation (think flight simulators or mock trials).

In Make It Stick, the authors report that the average person forgets about 70% of what they hear or read almost immediately after taking it in. This number is based on research by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Others scoff at that research and argue that memory retrieval is more nuanced and determined by other factors.

But think about your own experience.

You’re having dinner with friends and someone brings up a topic you’ve recently read about. You’re ready to jump in with an informed opinion, but find yourself fumbling over specifics. Instead of riveting your audience, they awkwardly move on to something else.

If only you had read that article 999 more times…

After John Coltrane's death, a congregation called the Yardbird Temple in San Francisco began worshipping him as God incarnate. He was later downgraded to “saint”.


This is also why cramming doesn’t help with long-term memory. In their paper, Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time, Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler say:

…overlearning appears to be effective in the short term and therefore might be a fine choice for learners who do not seek long-term retention.

There are instances when cramming or overlearning is not only convenient, but practical. When I moved to California from Washington, I had to retake the written test for my driver’s license, and crammed right there on the spot. I got 100% right, but would I repeat that ‘100% right’ performance now without studying beforehand? I doubt it.

So there’s a time and a place for the short-term gains by overlearning, but let’s hope your neurosurgeon didn’t “cram” for his final exam.

Cognitive effort

Back to retrieval-practice. According to the authors:

To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort.

The “cognitive effort” of this equation is a big deal. Apparently, the tougher it is to retrieve a piece of information, the longer it sticks in long-term memory. They continue:

“…the greater effort required by the delayed recall solidified the memory better. Researchers began to ask whether the schedule of testing mattered. The answer is yes. When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.”

In September, 2010, the New York Times published an article titled, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.

“Of course, one reason the thought of testing tightens people’s stomachs is that tests are so often hard. Paradoxically, it is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, research suggests. The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”

Although this research has been around for some time, for some reason, it hasn’t been widely adopted by teachers, institutions, and the culture at large.

Why isn’t the testing effect adopted by more schools and educators?

I believe we look at “tests” in the wrong way.

The Doors got its name from the title of Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception, which itself was a reference to a quote made by William Blake, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Their original name before they stuck with The Doors? "The Doors: Opened & Closed."

An alternative way to look at “tests”

What comes to mind when you think of the word test?

  • Pressure?

  • Stress?

  • All-nighters?

  • Don’t fail, or else?

  • Your life depends on this?

Traditionally, test results determine one’s life path. For example, test results can determine whether you can drive legally or not. They determine your final grades in school, and your grades determine your school of choice. Even employers use tests to screen job candidates, determining someone’s career path.

In addition to ensuring public safety and trust, tests determine if a pilot is skilled enough to fly and whether doctors or attorneys can practice their craft.

A doctor could accidentally kill someone if they don’t know what they’re doing.

A lawyer may forget notable case law, costing a client millions of dollars or even jail time.

A pilot that skips a vital task on their pre-flight checklist, might land in the middle of a desert.

People’s lives are at stake in these and many other professions. In these cases, tests are not only necessary, but also ensure widespread trust in our institutions.

However, according to the authors of Make it Stick, using tests primarily as a performance evaluation tool is not only a mistake, but short-sighted. The “testing effect” research (around for over 50 years) strongly suggests that non-graded quizzes are essential to learning and long-term memory.

A quiz gives students a self-evaluation tool, sure, but the act of “retrieval” sparked by the quiz helps them retain key information longer. This naturally leads to better outcomes when the stakes are higher.

The testing effect with ADHD students

What about people with learning challenges? Can the testing effect help them too?

In Does Testing Improve Learning For College Students With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder?, researcher Laura Knouse and her colleagues looked into it:

“Taking tests on to-be-learned material is one of the most powerful learning strategies for students. If students who struggle in traditional learning environments benefit from testing, this technique may provide a basis for interventions to improve their achievement.”

Laura Knouse, et al

And what did they find?

Students with ADHD showed a testing benefit similar in magnitude to their non-ADHD peers.

Let’s face it. Many people with ADHD go undiagnosed. Now you have a universal strategy that works for everybody.

Fantastic learning tools, not just performance evaluations

In September 2015, Bloomberg Business wrote an article with the following headline:

The main reason for this decline according to the article? Unprepared students can’t handle a harder test.

According to Erica Moeser, head of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), an organization that scores the Bar exam in every state except for Louisiana, students are simply ‘less able’.

In another article with Bloomberg, Are lawyers getting dumber?, Moeser states that her role is to protect consumers. Moeser continues:

Would most people say, ‘Oh, we ought to lower the standards so we can have more pediatricians?’ You’d say, ‘Not with my baby, you can’t.’

The conflict between the NCBE and law schools is notable. Law schools think the test is unfair. The NCBE believes law schools are admitting too many unqualified students for money reasons.

But how can law schools help students be ‘more able’? What if the key to being ‘more able’ is simply giving students more quizzesmore often? Professors would have to accept that tests are fantastic learning tools, too, not just for performance evaluation.

It could be win-win for everyone. For students, more information is retained in memory and more law students pass the Bar. Schools would benefit from higher passing rates and a reputation for delivering quality results.

And WE get competent attorneys. (I know, just what the world needs. More lawyers).

5 ways you can start today

Here are some testing tools you can use today. Some are perfect for online courses and others are better suited for a classroom or workshop setting.

  1. Use mini whiteboards to do gameshow style quizzes. Facilitators can ask questions and learners can write answers down and hold them up for the class to see.

  2. Use flash cards. Great for building vocabulary or establishing guiding principles.

  3. Pre-test students before they learn the topic. This has numerous benefits, including giving you an understanding of what each student knows. You establish a baseline of what your class needs to learn and you can customize your curriculum accordingly. And finally, you focus students’ attention on what they should be looking for.

  4. If you want to teach classes online, Udemy’s platform makes it easy to give quizzes to students. Skillshare encourages its participants to do projects as a final test of understanding. Or you could use online course platform to share your Typeform quizzes.

  5. Use Typeform. I recently took an online course and my instructor used a. Perfect for offline courses, workshops, and staff trainings. Learners can take quizzes on computers or their mobile devices.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Public Enemy number 44 on its list of the Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, the highest ranking for a hip hop act. The band were announced as inductees for the 2013 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on December 11, 2012, making them the fourth hip-hop act to be inducted.

Call to action

If you’re teaching something, whether it’s an online course (think Udemy or Coursera) or in the classroom, ask yourself this question: How much of a difference will it make in someone’s life?

Because if your course is truly important, wouldn’t you make the herculean effort to ensure your students truly learn the material? Wouldn’t you cover every base possible?

It’s challenging to design and teach a course to others. No question. Teachers have to curate reams of content, create tests and quizzes, put together visual aids and case studies to educate students properly, and magically adapt coursework for every student.

Also, if giving more quizzes helps memory retention and deeper learning, why not do more of that? And I’m talking low-stakes quizzes designed solely to increase retention, not to measure performance.

It’s a valid question.

Giving out more tests and quizzes is not a panacea for every learning environment, especially under the current paradigm of test taking. Clearly, it’s more complicated than that.

The lesson here is that tests, quizzes, and game-show-style competitions in the classroom are great tools for enhancing learning and increasing long-term memory. Take that to the bank.

Were you paying attention today? Take this quiz to find out

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