In defense of pop quizzes + an example

“Surprise! Today we have a pop quiz.”

The word “pop” is usually associated with things that make us happy – bubbles, soda, popcorn, Michael Jackson.

But when it’s put before “quiz”, “pop” suddenly turns sinister.

Pop quizzes get a bad rap from students, and even some teachers say they would never use them. The idea of being surprised by an assessment is unsavory if not downright scary. But if they’re used in the right way, pop quizzes can be very useful for both the student and the teacher.

There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to use pop quizzes. Let’s look at some of the bad ways to use pop quizzes first.


The teacher is at the front of the room talking, but it’s as if she isn’t even there. Her students are all talking to each other, sleeping, or playing on their phones. She claps her hands, calls on different students, but nothing is working. No one is paying attention to her. She exhales in frustration and then shouts, “Alright, pop quiz!”

It’s a scene from a bad high school movie, but I’ve heard stories about something similar playing out in adult ESL classrooms too.

The problem with this kind of pop quiz is that it’s not an assessment, it’s a punishment. The main goal isn’t to gauge student knowledge, it’s to get them to snap into “good student mode” and start paying attention. Pop quizzes should be primarily assessments (more on that later). There are plenty of other ways to create the learning atmosphere you want in your classes.


The students in your 8am class have started coming in later and later as the semester has gone on. You’ve made your speeches about it and repeated your institution’s tardiness policy. But the problem persists. So you decide to start giving pop quizzes at the start of class: if the students are there on time, they can take the quiz and get points; if they come late, they get a zero.

The problem with this situation is similar to the previous one – its focus is not on assessment. I have no problem with giving students zeros for tests or quizzes if they miss them without giving an adequate excuse. But arbitrarily giving quizzes to punish tardiness is not a good strategy. Let your attendance policy do its job in punishing students for coming late. If its really a problem, students won’t be able to perform on regular assessments well anyway since they will have missed so much of your class.

And I usually give pop quizzes at the start of my class – I’m not saying don’t do that, even if it is an 8am class. I’m specifically talking about pop quizzes that have no function other than to punish tardiness. I’ve heard of teachers making up super simple quizzes on the spot to give to their half-full classes because they know that those in attendance will definitely get 100%, which will reward them for being in class on time. At that point, the pop quiz isn’t an assessment; it’s a reward for attendance. Save those for the end of the semester awards ceremony.

Elements of a useful pop quiz


Pop quizzes are short and sweet. They shouldn’t last long and they shouldn’t count for many points. Students should know this. If they bomb a pop quiz, tell them it’s OK, it doesn’t count for much, and they will have many more chances to get better. This way, students won’t get too stressed when they hear they’re having a pop quiz, which can reduce test anxiety and give you a more accurate assessment of their ability.


Not 100% regular (then it wouldn’t be a “pop” quiz), but frequent. Students should know that if they screw up on a quiz, they will have more chances to do better. For the teacher, frequent pop quizzing can give you a very good idea of student strengths and weaknesses. A pop quiz shows the teacher how much the student knows about a topic when they’re asked about it “cold,” i.e. not studied for hours the night before.


Pop quizzes should ultimately help students recognize what they know and need to study more. I have my students either self-grade or partner-grade their pop quizzes right after they finish taking them. Then they see what they missed right away. At the end of quizzing and grading, I always make the same speech: “If you have a bad grade, go home and study this.” Bombing a pop quiz is a great motivation tool for students.


You should quiz your students on a new concept that they might not have fully grasped yet, or an older subject that you think they’ve forgotten about and that’s cropping up as a problem.

For example, if you’re teaching the present perfect and your students are going through the textbook with no problems, but suspect that they don’t really fully get it yet, give them a pop quiz with a few curve balls and see how they do.

Or, if you taught subject-verb agreement in the first week, but in week seven it’s still a big problem, give them a pop quiz. If they do terrible on it, they might be encouraged to student subject-verb agreement a little bit more.

Mixing both old and new is even more beneficial for students – it keeps old subjects fresh in their minds while assessing how well they’re learning a new topic.

Simple and straightforward

Students should be familiar with the question types on the pop quiz, or they should be able to figure them out right away. You want the students to get right into it and show you how much they know about the topic; it shouldn’t be a puzzle they need to figure out (those are fun too, but they’re not exactly pop quizzes).

Here is an example of a pop quiz on vowel sound perception that I used with a lower level pronunciation class. Only two question types – both things we’d done in class already. It took about five minutes.

Any other suggestions for using pop quizzes in the ESL classroom? Let me know.


Featured image credit: Michelle Tribe



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