7 Little Things about Knowledge Checks

By “knowledge checks,” I’m referring to the short evaluations that punctuate a learning package. They’re also called recall screens, recall exercises, quizzes, or something else. Here’s a mix of ideas, random thoughts, and tips about knowledge checks.

“Knowledge checks are boring and useless...”?

I’ve seen people dismiss recall quizzes for various reasons:

  • They’re boring/repetitive
  • They add no value
  • They’re in the true rote-learning tradition, and are therefore useless
  • You can’t make them interesting by making them pretty

This ignores the key point that reinforcement is part of learning. I can think of quite a few examples. Some of us, while in school, were told to spend a few minutes each day going over the day’s lessons. Those of us who developed the habit did get our payoff. Then, think about personal journalling as a life habit—which is, at root, clarity through recall.

Or, try this right now: Spend two minutes skimming through a webpage—any webpage structured in paragraphs. Then try to recollect what it said. Then, do it again, this time reflecting for just a couple of seconds at the end of each paragraph. You’ll probably recall more.

But you probably knew that. My point is, if assessments emphasise only recall, it reduces the value of a course. Given that, it’s still true that recall helps.

Challenge your learner once in a while

Along with quizzes or exercises for recall (and thus reinforcement), you could include a generous number of breakpoints in your course where the learner needs to sit back and think. For example, say your course is about Microsoft Office. After a section on Word, you have the Excel section, and you’ve just covered “Cell alignment.” You could ask at this point, “How is cell alignment in Excel similar to line alignment in Word?”

It doesn’t matter whether that exact thing has been covered or not. It doesn’t even matter whether this is posed as an actual question with an answer—or as a pause for reflection. The point is, when you scan what you’ve learnt, you learn.

Choose the appropriate level of detail

When reviewing what’s been presented in the past 5 or 10 minutes, you can afford to demand precise answers. But in a section summary, for example, try and ask broader questions. (This might be obvious, but I’ve seen too many contrary examples!)

Consider “many answers possible” questions

Even if your quiz is limited to short, objective-type questions, you don’t need to stick to multiple choice.

As one example, you could use a fill-in-the-blank question with no “correct answer.” In an industrial safety course, your question could be: “In managing a security breach, the _____ has an important role.” The feedback to the learner could be all the possible answers – or perhaps just a recap of the relevant material.

“Adults don’t need colourful crosswords...” But.

One rant I’ve seen against recall sessions is that making them fun doesn’t make them more useful. There is a point there. But making knowledge checks fancy isn’t the same as including diverse recall elements.

All the following can effect recall/reinforcement:

  • Multiple choice questions
  • Pauses for reflection after stating a key concept
  • Paper/pencil exercises where the learner summarises the material
  • Unstructured questions that ask the learner to connect diverse elements

Use remedial feedback effectively

Again, this is an obvious point, and I mention it because I’ve seen too many examples of “stock feedback.” An earlier post—Completing the Feedback Loop—lists some ideas.

Take a cue from mind-mapping

Mind-mapping—as a tool for learning, and as a tool for life—is popular enough to mention here. I’ve heard of successes in the “preview/review” approach: a learner creates a mind-map before a lesson, then another map after. This clarifies what’s been learnt, and works as an assessment in itself.

This, of course, goes into larger territory. In the context of knowledge checks, I’m referring to asking about conceptual connections instead of details, which can be a highly effective recall technique.

Here’s a paragraph about the parts of an airplane:

 An aircraft usually consists of the following parts: (a) A cylindrical form called a fuselage, usually with tapered or rounded ends. (b) Wings, which generate the force to lift the aircraft during flight. The wing halves are typically symmetrical. (c) Surfaces at the front and/or back of the fuselage, called stabilisers, which steady the aircraft during flight. (d) Propulsion units that push the aircraft forward, called engines.

A typical “recall only” question would be:

  • Which part of an aircraft creates the lifting force? (Fuselage/wing/stabiliser/engine)

Here’s a question that makes the learner form a mental picture:

  • In the description above, which aspect does not involve the concept of “motion”? (Fuselage/wing/stabiliser/engine)

As you think about the answer, the four parts of the aircraft stop seeming like four parts tacked together. It begins to look like... “the fuselage is being guided and moved by the other three parts.” Apart from serving as a recall exercise, such a question helps to structure information.