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#11: In Defense of Surprise Quizzes

This post hardly contains any advice on taking surprise quizzes. This post intends to make students realize the value of these tests as well as defend teachers who give them. We will also examine some conditions that are best satisfied before dishing out these types of quizzes.

Despite how much we may dislike teachers armed with surprise quizzes all throughout the school year, these types of quizzes may provide us with the best opportunities to think. The usual test setup proceeds this way: the teacher gives out the lesson, the students study it, then the teacher gives a quiz about it, and then a new lesson. This process goes on ad nauseam, until both teachers and students are numbed by it.

Surprise quizzes can break this treadmill. With this type of quiz, students can’t resort to their usual test-taking routine. They won’t be able to regurgitate answers because they wouldn’t have been told what to swallow beforehand. They won’t be able to practice only during a convenient time – they have to keep themselves sharp at all times. Their reflex question “So what will come out in the test?” (an absolutely absurd question that should have never been asked at all) will become invalid, for a surprise test should be surprise. Eventually that question, a cause of anxiety for many students, will be weaned out.

From these surprise test benefits, it follows that some test forms are more suited to surprise tests than others. Except for the most basic facts, identification and enumeration of rote facts would be awkward, unless the testing is to ensure mastery of only the most essential facts that students are liable to forget.

The best test types for surprise tests are essay tests, multiple-choice tests that contain no identification, and problem-solving tests. Rather than test specific content knowledge, these test types test the thought processes of students. Giving surprise tests signals the need for students to think sharp all the time, not just during exam time.

If students don’t have the rote knowledge or procedural knowledge needed to deal with a surprise test, then they have to think. As Jean Piaget, a child psychologist whose areas of study are staples in Education classes, said: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” A surprise test puts students in a position where by default they don’t know what to do, so they have to think, explore, innovate, make wild conjectures, test these conjectures, and look for relevant evidence. It can make students go beyond the usual “Who?” “What?”, “Where?” and “When?” to the realm of “Why?” and “How?”.

For teachers to give effective surprise tests, they should have a respect for sharp thinking at all times. They have to be creative in cooking up questions. A teacher who wants to pass on the “think-all-throughout” frame of mind to pupils should have that same mindset too. Also, when students hand over their answers to surprise tests where answers are long, teachers should be keen in reconstructing the logical processes of the answers they get. They ought to focus on the process more than the product (provided that the questions are focused on the process more than the product).

The world is a surprising world. It’s fast-changing. There’s no stepping in the same world twice, to adapt Heraclitus’ aphorism. All the tomes of information you have mastered at school may be of little use to you later on, as many graduates insist realistically.  According to Tony Wagner, author of several education reform books, during 1990, “the half-life of knowledge in the humanities is ten years, and in math and science, it’s only two to three years”. Half-life of a certain field of knowledge is the time taken for half of the knowledge in a certain field to become obsolete. Today, given the rush of technologies and the enormous speed of spreading information, these half-lives may have become shorter already. Surprise! Has our school system taught us to resist or respect these surprises?

Thus it is imperative that schools give them something else – the art of thinking well. Schools should get their students ready for surprises, not get them used to boredom. As an afterthought, schools should equip students the mental agility and fortitude to counteract routinized responses to boredom, such as watching noontime shows or drenching oneself on telenovelas.


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