Surprise ’em with what they don’t know

Sometimes it isn’t that we are bad teachers. And it isn’t that we aren’t giving students the lessons they need. It is that students aren’t willing to shore up their knowledge each night to make sure they know what they know, and figure out how to learn what they don’t know.

So I try to aperiodically remind them of that fact.

Yesterday, for example, I hinted to my students that they might have a pop quiz. We’ve been working on quadratics, and have seen questions like:

Solve 2x^2+5x+7=0


Graph x^2+10x-8=y

and the latest feather in our caps

Solve x^2+10 \leq 0

It’s a lot. And quadratic inequalities killed my kids last year. So I told my students to spend the night just reviewing the material and making sure that they can organize the information in their heads. They come to class today and I give them a two question pop quiz, both questions on quadratic inequalities. 6 minutes. Most are frantic. Clearly many didn’t shore up their knowledge.

I then tell them to stop and put their pencils down. I tell them it wasn’t for a grade. I tell them I’m not collecting it. They breathe a sign of relief. We then had a conversation.

What was hard about the pop quiz?
Did you think you knew the material?
Did taking this quiz demonstrate that? Or did it tell you something else?

It was a nice and short conversation and I think it really drove home the point: you think you know, but you have no idea.

So here’s something for you to consider doing, if you’re cruel like me: a very occasional fake pop quizzes can be a nice conversation starter about studying and nightly responsibility.

UPDATE: So in this case, the faux pop-quiz was only moderately successful. Last year so many kids didn’t know what to do on the 1D quadratic inequalities question on the final unit assessment.  This year they were less were confused. But still there were enough students who didn’t know how to solve it to give me pause. I realize now that we learned so many different types of linear/quadratic things that students kept confusing “what’s the question asking?” and “how do I solve that kind of problem?” So I need to come up with a way to emphasize at each point of the unit these two fundamental questions. And maybe designing a short activity where students are forced to answer those questions.



  1. That’s not for me. I tell kids way way early that I will never surprise them with a test or quiz, and I never do. This work is hard enough knowing when it’s coming, and produces sufficient anxiety without needing a giant boost.

    As a kid, on the other hand, I did not mind them at all – but I was a kid who far preferred tests to homework….

    Your sample inequality is true for all real x. Doesn’t bother me or you, but that sort of thing can shake up a kid.


    1. I am totally okay surprising students with small pop quizzes like this. (Not that I do it often. This might have been my third or fourth time this year. I always do it intentionally, to make a point that needs to be made.) Part of the idea is that I *want* them to have that moment of freak out. That’s the point. I encourage them to acknowledge the meaning of that anxiety: “Hey, maybe I don’t know this thing well enough. I thought I did, but I guess I always had my notes open as a crutch. Better that I figure that out now than later.”

      I’ll pre-emptively say that I know that not knowing the material well is not the only reason for the anxiety for kids. Some just hate tests/quizzes and freak out at them. But honestly, I say kids need to learn to work through that.

      (Also, just to note: this is probably the only thing I do to *purposefully* raise the anxiety level of my class. In general, I find a relaxed atmosphere WAY more conducive to a good lesson. One of the learning specialists who sat in on my classes said that she thought I was really good at keeping things relaxed but focused.)


  2. I’m wondering if a “planned’ quiz (since you pretty much announced you were having one, it doesn’t really make it “pop” now does it?!) coupled with some quality feedback by you, the instructor, would get the same point (y’all don’t know this stuff!) across. Is it necessary for kids to freak out just so they’ll see that they don’t know as much as they think they know?

    I’ve always seen formative assessment as serving this purpose – bridging the gap between what students know and what they should know (along with giving the instructor a picture of their misconceptions to guide future instruction). Hear me out, I’m not trying to jump too hard on your idea here, Sam, but wouldn’t students have benefited *more* with your written or verbal feedback (i.e. this is where you need to improve your quadratic solving skills) than this thinking exercise? Again, just throwing thoughts out there…

    1. @Matt: You ask: “Is it necessary for kids to freak out just so they’ll see that they don’t know as much as they think they know?” It’s a great question, and one I wrote three different answers to, and kept deleting.

      I honestly think that at certain situations, the answer is yes. When I see students are getting lazy with their work, or becoming complacent, or both, I think it isn’t a bad idea to jolt them awake with a pop quiz. Especially if done is a gentle-ish way. It’s not like what I’m doing is cruel or unusual, they way I do it with them. And it isn’t like I’m freaking them out TOO much. It’s a 6 minute pop quiz.

      Would it do the same thing if I told them in advance? I’m guessing not.

      (And as for written/verbal feedback: it’s not like I didn’t go over the pop quiz solutions with them.)

      1. Hey Sam,
        I wasn’t trying to criticize your pop quiz idea (although after reading my comment, I think it came off that way). My point was to think about the pros and cons of your approach with having students turn in the quiz, you seeing their misconceptions, commenting on them and handing them back. I’ve found that a) merely show students the correct answer doesn’t always help them overcome their own misconceptions and b) there’s value in seeing the variety of student responses to get a collective picture of where students are at to influence future instruction.

        I’m open to your extended thoughts on this comparison if you feel it’s worth discussing.

  3. I have given many more “quizzes” this year that I have not necessarily graded for correctness. I have learned this year to be more open about what quizzes do for me as a teacher- they show where students are still deficient and help me identify what areas need the most work in my classes.

    Some days, I give an “exit quiz.” This is at the end of a lesson, and it has to do with what we had just learned in class. I don’t think it is totally fair to grade students on material that they had just learned, because they haven’t had time to process it or practice it much. But it does help keep them more accountable during the lesson, knowing that they will be turning in work at the end of class. I give them the answer at the end of class, and let them know that there are practice sheets covering that skill at the front of class that they can take on their way out the door for extra practice. I have seen students taking more ownership over their learning by doing this.

    I also have developed a pretty fancy item analysis tracker that I have made public to the students. Every Wednesday, I give a short 5 question quiz where anything from the year is fair game. I plug the results into my tracker, where I have the state Algebra 2 standards in the spreadsheet, and can show the students that every time there is a question about rationalizing fractions with a complex denominator or solving logarithmic equations, they get the question wrong. As I have done this, I have had more students coming in for tutoring during lunch or after school and asking specific questions. They have taken a lot more ownership of their learning than they have in the past, because they have seen specifically where they are struggling.

    Your overall point is a good one that I have to remind my students (and myself) of… just because they have seen me do a couple of examples on the board and were able to successfully copy the work down in their notebook does not mean that they can do a problem on their own.

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