Would you like to help your students increase their final marks and, at the same time, improve their confidence, study habits and class attendance? Well, that’s exactly what a team from the University of Auckland achieved by adding frequent, low-stakes quizzes to their subject’s assessments.

The research

Tanya Evans, Barbara Kensington-Miller and Julia Novak from the University of Auckland want what all good instructors want: to improve their students’ engagement and final marks. The researchers teach a 12-week, undergraduate maths class, consisting of three lectures and one tutorial each week.

They created a series of 32 separate Canvas quizzes, of which the best 28 scores would contribute 7% of their students’ final grade. Each two-question quiz was based on the materials students had encountered in their last lecture and had to be completed before the start of their next lecture. Quizzes could be attempted twice and, for students who had studied, were relatively easy.

The results

Perhaps most surprisingly, the vast majority of the 393 students enrolled in the course completed each of the 32 quizzes, with the lowest participation rate being 81.2%, and the highest being 96.45%. Yep, you read that correctly!

Moreover, a survey of these students discovered that while just over two-thirds of them studied prior to their first attempt at a quiz, over four-fifths of students studied before attempting a quiz for the second time. Students subsequently stated that this extra time spent studying contributed to their increased understanding of the subject content.

Students also reported that they had attended lectures for this maths course more frequently than they had for previous prerequisite courses with 27% saying that the online quizzes had been a motivating factor. This not only benefitted students, tutors noticed the difference too. They found that less tutorial time was spent revising basic concepts, meaning more time was available to focus on the core subject content.

The end result of this increased engagement was, unsurprisingly, that students got better marks. To judge this, the researchers compared the results achieved in the trial semester with those achieved in the previous one. Following statistical analysis to judge the significance of the results, this comparison revealed that not only was the average subject grade higher – remember the quizzes themselves only accounted for 7% – the pass rate and the number of A grades awarded were higher too.

The theory

While it will come as no surprise that increasing student engagement will improve overall marks, there are two key concepts behind this research that help explain why such a minor change to the subject’s assessments produced such great results: self-efficacy and distributed practice.


Students’ expectations of, and assumptions about, their ability to learn contribute to their sense of self-efficacy. If they have been successful in the past, the chances of them succeeding again increase, as does their motivation and engagement with subject material. That’s why, in this study, the quizzes were very deliberately designed to be quite easy – the average score was 90.76%. As long as they had reviewed the lecture materials, students had a great chance of getting full marks on an assessment that counted towards their final grade. This success, the authors suggest, provided students with a ‘mastery experience’ that encouraged them to view themselves and their abilities positively – a self-perpetuating self-efficacy cycle!

Distributed practice

Distributed (aka. spaced) practice is one of the key understandings of cognitive science. The idea is that it is more effective to distribute study time over a longer period than a shorter one (i.e., short study sessions interspersed with breaks are better than an intense cram session). So, by providing students with a lecture, an online quiz, another lecture, another online quiz, etc., the researchers created a distributed study pattern that maximised student learning.

Try it yourself

This research demonstrated that using frequent, low-stakes Canvas quizzes could enhance student engagement and improve grades. Implementing a similar strategy in your subject could possibly achieve similar results. So why not give it a try?

Book a consultation with the LX.lab to discuss your assessment design or to delve more deeply into the affordances of Canvas quizzes.

Reference: Evans, T., Kensingon-Miller, B., & Novak, J. (2021). Effectiveness, efficiency, engagement: Mapping the impact of pre-lecture quizzes on educational exchange. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 37(1), 163-177.

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