Every now and then, I come across a letter from Uncle Curmudgeon, an old retired teacher, to his niece, Kennari, an aspiring new teacher. I’m happy to pass them along from time to time! Enjoy!     -Mike


Dear Kennari-

It was wonderful to receive your last letter. Things have been pretty slow here at Sweet Meadow Acres for Retired Teachers, and your youthful voice and stories from the classroom warm my heart and keep my mind off of my rheumatisms.

You asked about the value of pop quizzes. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have some thoughts.

My question is, what’s your purpose? In my experience, there are three reasons teachers often give pop quizzes.

Reason #1: Because they think they should. I remember as a young teacher (back when the Earth was still cooling), doing some things either because I thought I was supposed to (a poor reason) or because they made me feel more teacherly (a worse reason). Pop quizzes are one of those practices that can make teachers feel like teachers. Since this has nothing to do with learning, it has little, if any, merit.

Reason #2: To catch kids. This reason is worse than the first. Instead of being thoughtless, this second reason is manipulative—even mean-spirited. Do we want students completing assignments out of fear? Are we trying to foster an adversarial atmosphere with our students? If not—if we believe that kids want to do well and do so when they can—and they aren’t doing the work we assign, maybe we should try to figure out why. Are they overwhelmed or confused? Do they need more time or perhaps even (*gasp*) less work. Is the work itself boring? We must be careful not to use pop quizzes to energize assignments not otherwise worth doing.

Reason #3: To know what they know. Now we’re getting somewhere. Perhaps we’re wondering how well students remember some of the key concepts they worked on the day before. Maybe we need to get a handle on who needs some extra attention. (What do you young teachers call these? Formative assessments? Another new name for an old good idea…) Having everyone answer a few short questions or solve a few quick problems at the beginning of class can help you know where to go next with your teaching. How do you do this well, you ask?

  • Keep ‘em short. Pick just one or two key questions you’re trying to answer and fashion a check-in that takes five minutes or less to take. After all, it would be crazy to take up more valuable teaching and learning time than necessary, wouldn’t it?
  • Don’t call them “pop quizzes.” This name just screams, “I’m trying to catch you with your trousers down.” Instead, try something that sounds more inviting and positive: “quick-check” and “check-in” are a couple of ideas. You’re young and creative—you can surely do better than I.
  • Let the kids know you’re in their corner. “Today we’re going to see where we are with this new skill we’re learning.” Or something like this. The idea is to convey the feeling that you and the students are all on the same team. It’s amazing how much harder the kids will try, how much better you’ll know them, and how much more they’ll learn, when this is the tone of the room.

I hope this helps. Glad you asked…

Well, I’d love to keep writing, but Mrs. Jenkins (a former English teacher) is organizing a spelling bee out on the veranda. I don’t want to join (no one does), but I heard they’re serving chocolate pudding. Ah…that stuff brings me right back.

Yours truly,

Uncle Curmudgeon

  1. Thanks Uncle Curmudgeon! You’re a pretty clear thinker for a grumpy old man! It’s so important for us always to examine the “why’s” of what we do.

  2. Good stuff, Unc! One more thought – even if you call them pop quizzes make them fun, so kids look forward to a pop quiz. Ask the questions you need to know but surround those few with a couple easy fun things, related if you can. E.g. Math ” list what foods you had for dinner. Estimate calories. How many did you eat.
    ” you are driving a bus, three get on two get off, what is the bus drivers name?”

    • Keeping things fun is always a plus! This would help set a tone where it feels like the teacher and kids are on the same team.

  3. Great advice Uncle C! Makes me think of other things I may be doing that I think I “should” do… Looking forward to your next letter.

  4. Thanks– helpful to see dynamics I could unintentionally set up or feed. I can picture Kennari sharing her words at an open mic somewhere someday!