How I Abandoned Summative Assessments and Learned to Love Adaptive Quizzing

Megan McNamara is a sociology instructor at UC Santa Cruz, Foothill College, and West Valley College. You can learn more about her experience using InQuizitive in this video.

As a sociologist who consciously chose a career in teaching, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to do my job effectively. Like most of us, I got into the classroom for the first time and promptly reproduced instruction in the slightly traumatizing way that I had always seen it done. I prepared long lectures. I wrote lengthy exams, ostensibly as a means of assessing the mastery I hoped students would attain from those lectures.

Spoiler alert: mastery was *not* achieved.

I eventually discovered the small but robust communities of pedagogical disrupters that have begun to proliferate in campus teaching centers across the country. Through those connections, I engaged in what felt like radical conversations about new evidence-based approaches to teaching.

One of the books that most profoundly influenced my thinking was Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown et al., Bellknap, 2014). In it, I discovered that conventional models of “lecture + exam” are not particularly useful in effecting long-term learning—the kind that leaves students with access to their new knowledge for years to come. Instead, the conventional model leads to an artificial sense of mastery that…well, isn’t. Students cram for a day or two and then promptly forget the material once the exam is over because it was never solidly rooted in their memory to begin with.

I decided to experiment with removing quizzes and exams (also called “summative” assessments because they are meant to assess the sum total of what a student has learned at the end of a learning process). I envisioned replacing them with “formative” assessments—learning activities in which the student actively learns in the process of working through the assessment because they are engaging in memory retrieval practice and interleaving.

I still had an age-old problem to confront: when students don’t have exams as structures of accountability, the reading lists in our syllabi are aspirational at best. This is not because students aren’t interested in the readings, but because, like you and me, they’re dealing with many competing priorities that will tend to edge out reading unless there is a motivational point value attached.

Enter adaptive quizzing.

I began by adopting InQuizitive, W. W. Norton’s adaptive quiz platform. I liked how it guided students through a series of carefully designed questions aimed at getting them to read their textbooks with consideration and care. InQuizitive was even gamified; students could bet more points if they were confident they knew the answer or minimize their losses if they were feeling unsure. Instead of being graded on the percentage of a finite number of questions they answered correctly, they could keep answering questions until they reached the minimum points threshold I set—at which point, they earned 100% on the assignment.

No test anxiety. No time pressure.

While the theory of formative assessment made sense to me, I still didn’t trust it. The first term that I used InQuizitive, I actually kept my old-school exams in the syllabus. I wanted to see a direct comparison in the exam grades. I needed proof that InQuizitive was truly effective in generating learning.

You can probably imagine my surprise when my course exam—same questions as before, same book, same everything—shot up from a 5-year class average of 68% to a class average of 90%.

I checked it multiple times because it didn’t seem possible. But the numbers were accurate; InQuizitive worked. It gave my students the structure they needed to complete the readings in an active, attentive way—as they now regularly reflect back in my course evaluations.

In addition to InQuizitive, I wrote weekly discussion prompts designed to get students interacting with each other, taking the key concepts they were learning from InQuizitive and making connections between theory and the world around them. I added a variety of other homework assignments (reading logs and short activities) to keep them accountable to the ancillary readings I assign from readers/anthologies.

By providing a variety of low-stakes assignments that are worth points, students stay motivated to complete the very part of a course that is easiest to let drop if an instructor measures success solely through the administration of high-stakes exams. We all walk away feeling better about the experience. And they walk away having accomplished real learning.

Tossing my traditional exams felt a little like walking off a precipice—but it ultimately produced the results that had been eluding me for years.

I’m never going back.