When his practice quizzes were a flop, this psychologist created a midterm challenge game that can earn students an A—and bragging rights.
Assistant Professor of Experimental Psychology, Eastern Kentucky University
PhD and MS in Experimental Psychology, BA in Biology
Before he became an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University, Hung-Tao Michael Chen, PhD, was a psychology lecturer at Florida International University. Many students in his classes were part-time, first-generation college students, often from Latin American backgrounds, who had had little opportunity to develop effective learning strategies. It was in this setting that Chen began experimenting with gamification techniques to turn test preparation into an amusing competition.
Chen recalls one successful competitor in his class. “He wasn’t actually a very good student,” Chen says. “[Before the midterm challenge], his cumulative score in the class was a B- or C+. But he really took the opportunity—he likes games, I guess—and he didn’t just get a high grade, he scored the highest on repetitive practice testing. There was a leader board for the class, so his win was announced in public. He was King of the Hill. He had spent 10 hours preparing for the test, and he earned bragging rights for that. It was worth it to him.” Adds Chen: “He lost the competition for the final exam, but he ended up with an A in the course.” One does not need to be a cognitive psychologist to know that must have felt good.
Challenge: A strategy that unexpectedly increased stress
When he began teaching, Chen found that many of his students had never learned effective strategies for studying, time management, and exam preparation. At best, they were rereading and highlighting their books and notes before a test. But Chen—a cognitive psychologist who has closely examined the literature on learning—is convinced that one of the most effective means to ensure long-term retention of the material is the practice-retrieval strategy.
In this approach, students take practice tests repeatedly before the actual exam. In fact, Chen had long encouraged students to try the practice problems at the end of each chapter in the textbook, but he found that few complied. So he took it one step further, giving students multiple graded practice quizzes before a unit exam “to encourage them to study and take advantage of practice testing effect,” Chen says.
The result was not as he had hoped: “I got slaughtered by student evaluations,” he says. “Students really did not like the added stress of multiple small quizzes right before a unit exam. So I started thinking: How could I revise this approach to be less stressful to students but still achieve high participation?”
Innovation: Gamifying the practice quiz experience
Chen credits his wife with the insight that led to his approach for making practice testing less of an anathema to students. “She said, ‘You have to make it fun,’” he recalls. “She suggested making it a game.”
To that end, Chen replaced his unpopular mandatory quizzes with a voluntary “King of the Hill” Midterm Challenge:
The challenge centers on a timed quiz with a bank of more than 400 questions. It is administered through the “Test” function in the Blackboard virtual classroom platform, which selects the questions randomly from the question bank and times out the student at 10 minutes. “Obviously, nobody can answer 400 questions in a time span of 10 minutes,” Chen notes. But students can take the quiz as often as they want—both to study and to attempt to beat their high score.
As the challenge’s name implies, the students are competing with each other on these quizzes, and Chen has created a powerful incentive to do so: “The person who gets the most questions right in a span of 10 minutes gets an automatic 100% for the midterm,” Chen says.
Course: PSY 200 Introduction to Psychology
Frequency: Online for 16 weeks
Class size: 18
Course description: A survey of the major content areas and methods of psychology, including history, biological correlates, cognition, language, intelligence, motivation, emotion, development, personality, abnormal, therapy, and social behavior.
Michael Chen's Teaching ResourcesSee materials
Lesson: The “King of the Hill” Midterm Challenge
“My main goal is to get students excited and interested in psychology, regardless of their majors or career goals, despite their preconceptions, [one of which, frequently, is] that psychology is a dead-end field with few high-paying job opportunities. I want people to see that the course content and the science of psychology are inherently interesting and applicable to a wide range of long-term goals.”— Hung-Tao Michael Chen, PhD
Chen says the Blackboard platform makes quiz setup a simple matter of checking a few settings. He selected the option to enable students to take the quiz an unlimited number of times (“Multiple Attempts”) and he set the time limit per session for 10 minutes. Blackboard automatically stops the test when the time limit is reached, then records the results up to that point.
The program also is set to release questions one at a time, in randomized order, so students cannot pick and choose what they answer. “Because the questions are randomized, the student should be getting a different set of questions every time,” he notes.
In addition to making the most of the Blackboard platform, Chen suggests these strategies to an educator seeking to create a similar challenge:
Explain the perks scientifically
“I sell the idea [of practice testing] to students by telling them that this is one of the best ways to review for a big exam, according to the cognitive psychology experts.”— Hung-Tao Michael Chen, PhD
“I sell the idea to students by telling them that this is one of the best ways to review for a big exam, according to the cognitive psychology experts,” Chen says. The top scorer receives a prize, but Chen assures his students that participation will not negatively affect any of them in any way. “I make it clear that the results will not affect the student’s grade.”
Time box the testing period
Chen generally allows students to access the practice testing one week prior to the exam, and he closes it six hours before the actual test time.
Have a large question bank
Chen suggests professors using his approach should create a bank of at least 300 questions. “A large question pool allows for the possibility of novel questions in each attempt,” he explains. “It is meant to discourage students from trying to memorize the answers to specific questions.”
Source questions from a competitor’s textbook
Interestingly, Chen did not build the question bank for his class by combing through the textbook he was using for the course; he notes that this would be difficult for most instructors to do if they wanted to create a large bank of questions. Instead, he sourced related questions from the textbooks of other publishers. “For example, if I am using the McGraw-Hill book for Intro to Psychology, I would get the test bank from Pearson’s Intro to Psychology textbook,” Chen says. He selected multiple-choice questions from publisher-provided questions banks that he then imported into Blackboard.
Show them where they erred
“I want students to be able to review the questions they got wrong, but I don’t want to show them the answers to the entire quiz bank,” Chen cautions. He set Blackboard such that students can view the results after submission, but the system will show them only which questions were right or wrong. This way, they can read the question that they missed, but they cannot see the answer choices and correct response. When they know what tripped them up, they can go back to their textbook and research it to find the answer on their own.
Let students drive the competition
To be eligible to receive the prize, students must report their highest score in Blackboard using a simple discussion forum. The forum is open to the entire class, so everyone can see who is the current game leader—and what score they need to beat.
At times, there have been two students who earned the same high score on the challenge quizzes. “In case of a tie, the top scorers divide that 100% evenly as bonus points,” says Chen. “For example, if two students each got 20 questions right within 10 minutes, they both still need to take the midterm, but each gets bonus points [added] to their midterm exam score, up to [a total grade of] 100%.”
With this new approach, the result was exactly what Chen envisioned. “If you put in the time, you will be rewarded,” he asserts.
In the most recent semester, 81 students chose to compete—a 73% participation rate. “That’s quite high for an Intro to Psychology class with mostly college freshmen and sophomores who are not psychology majors,” Chen asserts. (It is also significantly higher than the 40% participation rate he had averaged on practice testing sessions before he gamified the process.)
More specifically, during this recent semester:
- Slightly more than 50% of the class attempted the challenge twice or more.
- The winner was a single student, who logged a total of 65 attempts. “That translated to 10 hours and 50 minutes’ work,” Chen calculates. “I think the student deserved to be waived from the exam after logging almost 11 hours of practice time.”
- The average number of attempts was 7.7—about 1 hour and 17 minutes spent on the practice test, on average.
- There was a strong correlation between practice test participation and performance on the exam. The best exam scores were earned by those who had made 11–15 practice attempts.
So far, Chen has shared his resources with one other colleague. Although the initial test set-up took Chen a few hours, simply importing the question bank into Blackboard and creating the quizzes using Chen’s settings took his colleague about 10 minutes, Chen estimates.
Students’ responses to the game have been mixed. Some felt the challenge allowed them to push themselves to maximize their scores; one asserted that the challenge “essentially branded information into my head that I may not have studied or retained … if I had studied under normal means.”
Other students, however, complained that the challenge had incentivized them to “memorize the answers to the questions, but not actually learn the material.”
As for the competitive element, some students were energized, while others found it increased their stress. “I hate working against friends in competitive gameplay because someone has to lose and losing sucks,” one complained.
Chen notes that his strategy for this lesson is still evolving; he has already implemented changes in response to feedback from students and colleagues, and he is considering further improvements for future iterations. Meanwhile, however, he has also received numerous positive student responses:
“I was able to score higher on the midterm and final exam.”
“It … helped me engage in learning more.”
“This game has promoted the interaction with my peers.”
“The King of the Hill challenge provided a fun way to learn the required content.”
“Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the King of the Hill challenges.”
“This ‘King of the Hill’ challenge has been very beneficial for me.”