Do you want to know how to make your students really LOVE you? Simply force them to study almost every day, under the constant fear of a pop cumulative exam that you have threatened to spring on them at any moment.

Then, actually follow through with the threat a few random times throughout the semester, assessing students on all the knowledge they've learned in your class to date, and implicitly penalizing students who haven't kept up with their studies.

You’re going to be the most popular teacher ever!

Okay, I know this teaching strategy sounds crazy. The idea that your students will love you for implementing this dystopian, draconian pop quiz system in your classroom is perfectly counterintuitive. The outcome—keeping your students constantly up-to-date with what’s going on in class—may be pretty awesome. But to make them actually like and respect you for it???

Bear with me here, as this is totally possible. The secret to achieving this progressive learning system and teaching students to LOVE the system boils down to:

  1. The way students learn,
  2. The way you deliver pop quizzes, and
  3. Your ability to not just "impart knowledge" but to actually instill new, lifelong habits for which your students will be eternally grateful.

Sure, your students may not love your surprise cumulative pop quizzes or exams at first, but they for sure will love them when they reach final exam time and realize that, hey, I already remember all this stuff and don't have to study at all!

Your job, of course, is to manage these pop cumulative exams correctly. And in this guide, I’m going to show you exactly how to do that so that you (1) really help your students, (2) they don’t resent you for it (even at first), and (3) you barely have to do any work to maintain this process.

(Psst. We’ve got a whole lot more awesome advice for educators like you in Brainscape’s Teachers’ Academy so be sure to check that out!)

How learning really works

Girl sleeping on an a pile of open books

Over the past several decades, educators and learning scientists seem to have hopped from one pedagogical obsession to another. In the 1940s, video-based learning was supposed to revolutionize the learning process. In the 1990s, it was Internet-based encyclopedias. Nowadays, it's artificial intelligence, gamification, or fancy new technology platforms like virtual reality.

But all of these supposed “breakthroughs” are mostly just new ways of presenting new learning. In other words, they mostly aim to provide more engaging and accessible ways to improve students' understanding of the initial exposure to the knowledge or skill. What they don’t do is pay much attention to how well that new content will be retained in the long term.

Read: ‘How to DOUBLE your students’ knowledge retention

The truth is that genuine, permanent learning happens through a pattern of systematic reinforcement—something we call spaced repetition.

For example, let's say you're a Spanish teacher, and you are teaching your students Lesson 17: Advanced Restaurant Concepts. You may have just come up with the world's most creative lesson to teach your students the word for "meatball" (albóndiga), including:

(i) A story about a chef making meatballs,

(ii) A skit where students practice their new restaurant terms,

(iii) A worksheet where students write about their favorite dishes, and

(iv) A tongue-twister involving this difficult-to-pronounce word.

What a great set of constructivist exercises!

Yet, no matter how brilliant your lesson, I guarantee you that if your students aren't systematically practicing the word albóndiga during the days and weeks after that lesson, they will still forget it nearly as soon as they would have if you taught them straight from a textbook.

And when they do eventually cram for their next scheduled test at the last minute (as you know they will), they will likely have to re-learn the word again from scratch when studying.

What an inefficient use of everyone's time!

If only students could just continue to study their Spanish words and verb conjugations every day, but with expanding intervals of repetition for each concept. For example: perhaps they review the word albóndiga again two days after your award-winning restaurant lesson; then again a week later; then again three weeks later (while still reviewing other words during the "off days").

Brainscape has already shown in our spaced repetition white paper that a personalized system of persistent individual review can have as big of an impact as every student having their own personal human academic tutor. And we have also shown that spaced repetition is not just for academics but is actually the very secret to all human development (nll), from learning to walk, to improving your guitar skills, to becoming an astrophysicist.

So why shouldn't educators be empowering students to better incorporate spaced repetition into their daily life, through the power of frequent and random (cumulative) pop quizzes?

The best part is that this doesn't even have to be an annoying or cumbersome process.  It can actually make life easier for both you and your students, versus your current traditional system of "scheduled" exams.

And here’s now ...

The logistics of mini-cumulative exams

Teacher standing at front of class to announce a pop quiz

The trick to effectively transforming your cumulative exams process from "scheduled" to "random" is to actually think of them more like pop quizzes.

Educators who have succeeded with this practice tend to follow three core principles:

  1. Quiz students frequently,
  2. Make the quizzes short and sweet, and
  3. Provide students with convenient bite-sized study tools with which they can study for just five minutes a day without having to think or plan too much.

Let's dive into each tip in a bit more detail ...

1. Give frequent pop quizzes

In order to maintain the surprise "pop" element of the cumulative pop quiz concept, you must administer these exams quite frequently.

If it’s just two or three per semester, after writing one, students will know it’ll be a while before the next one and will probably end up slacking for a few weeks. This will completely negate the benefits of the lightweight, daily study habits you’re trying to instill.

And so, it’s a good practice to give up to 1-3 cumulative pop quizzes per month (if not every week), but to do so in a way that will not significantly increase your burden of grading them. After all, this teaching strategy needs to be sustainable for you too!

For example, you could begin every class with a short cumulative quiz, then have students pass the papers to the front of the classroom so that you can shuffle them and redistribute for students to grade for you.

Or, for a more virtual alternative, you can try creating each pop quiz using Google Forms, which offers a simple option for turning the form into an assessment, where grades are easily recorded for each student (which is even more seamless if you are also using Google Classroom to manage your course).

The important thing is to develop processes that do not add significant extra work, or else it will be too tempting to slack off and not actually assess your students frequently.

2. Make the mini-cumulative exams short and sweet

Typing on a type writer the words say "Once upon a time ... The End."

The second important principle is to ensure that the frequent cumulative quizzes do not take up a significant portion of class time, or else you wouldn't have time for other instruction or collaborative class activities.

In fact, if you test frequently enough, it could even be appropriate for you to give pop quizzes of just one to three questions, or one longer written question.

I once had a calculus teacher (hi, Mr. Slater) who started every class with the "one-minute question" that covered any topic we had previously covered. It was passed out on a small slip of paper and, after the one minute was over, we just passed it to the person to our left to be graded. This took no more than two minutes of total class time every day!

(Nobody cheated the grades for their friends because we knew that Mr. Slater could double-check that the answer was indeed correct. And really, with the one-minute time limit, nobody had time to cheat in the first place.)

Either way, remember that grading these micro-quizzes could be even faster if you're distributing them virtually somehow, e.g. using Google Forms or another type of tool. Sure, it will take more of your planning time to prepare these micro-quizzes, but it does not have to take up much actual class time at all.

3. Give students convenient daily study tools

Hands each raising an individual tool into the air.

Up until this point, you may have been thinking about how cruel it would be to expect your students to stay perpetually prepared for a pop quiz that you might spring on them at any moment.

That's because we traditionally think of studying for a scheduled cumulative test as pulling out your textbook and notes and reviewing everything. With this mindset, a student would indeed need to sit down for several hours in order to wrap their head around all that material. And this is not feasible to do every day!

But if we're aiming to constantly assess student learning on all cumulative course material—and thus assume that they will be studying near daily in order to stay perpetually prepared for such cumulative assessments—then the more practical solution would be to provide a super-convenient way for students to just study for 5 minutes a day. And to ensure that they use those 5 minutes for precisely the concepts they are least confident in.

Brainscape provides exactly such a tool.

With Brainscape's adaptive flashcards app, students don't even have to think about what to study next, thanks to the magic of spaced repetition. As long as they already have the material pre-divided into good flashcards, all students have to do is click (or tap) the “Study” button, and the system knows exactly which flashcards to show them. This is based on their previous confidence rating (on a scale of 1 to 5) of how well they knew each concept.

The advanced planning it takes to generate* these flashcards will be well worth the hassle.

* You can do this either by finding them on the Brainscape's marketplace, by making them yourself, by having your TA make flashcards, or by engaging your own students in a collaborative flashcard-creation activity!

Students who spread their studies out in tiny daily sessions end up having to study less aggregate time than students who only mass their studies before each big exam. And your students will understand and appreciate this when they take on their first major exam after a semester of relentless pop quizzes.

Studying a little bit each day is a much more efficient (and enjoyable) way to learn than cramming a lot of information right before a major assessment!

Your students should thus be easily motivated to study a little every day so that they can always feel ready for that potential pop quiz. And if the spectre of a quiz (or Brainscape's built-in habit-formation features) is not enough, then you can even assign a daily study requirement and track students' study habits using Brainscape's educator dashboard.

This brings me back to that big initial question ...

Why your students will thank you for giving cumulative pop quizzes

Student holding up a sign that says thank you

I admit it: When most educators tell their students that they'll be springing constant pop quizzes on them, it's not always received with great fanfare.

But, as I said before, I've never met a group of students who didn't agree that the continual assessment was great -- by the end of the semester. Indeed, Brainscape's top educator-users have reported four huge benefits of this teaching strategy for which their students have been eternally grateful:

  1. A burden-free final exam: Students who have been studying a little bit each day for the whole semester end up having very little preparation to do for the final exam. While their peers in other classes are stressing out, your students will be smugly bragging about how comfortable life is in your class.
  2. Improved student learning: Once students have tasted the benefits of daily spaced repetition (and slashing their aggregate required study time), it will instill better study habits for life. And they will always think back to your class as the source of those habits.
  3. More permanent knowledge: When educators give more frequent cumulative assessments, students tend to come back years later and report that they still remember the course material down pat, whereas peers who had other professors had forgotten everything.
  4. Stronger real-world skills: In the workplace, you don't just cram for a test and then have the luxury of forgetting everything in the weeks thereafter. For example:

If you're a sales rep, you need to constantly refresh your product knowledge, or you won't be able to sell as well (or earn as much commission).

Or if you're learning Spanish for work, you'll need to constantly keep your vocab and verb conjugations up to date (through study or hella practice), or your Spanish skills will atrophy.

Or if you're working your way up the company ladder, you'll want to review the names and positions of key company execs in case you run into one of them in the elevator and miss a critical schmoozing opportunity.

Thus, teaching students to become aware of their knowledge weaknesses and their needs for perpetual knowledge refreshment will prepare them for success in academics, in their career, and in life.

So, I’ll ask you again: do you want to know how to make your students LOVE you?

Simply force them to study almost every day, under the constant fear of a pop quiz. And then follow through on that threat several times throughout the week, nevermind the semester, assessing students on all the knowledge they've learned in your class to date.

Suddenly this teaching strategy doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea, does it?

For more awesome articles like this one, go to Brainscape’s Teachers’ Academy.