Teaching of Psychology, 36: 29–32, 2009 Copyright C© Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0098-6283 print / 1532-8023 online DOI: 10.1080/00986280802529152


Mastery Quizzing as a Signaling Device to Cue Attention to Lecture Material

Jeffrey S. Nevid and Katie Mahon St. John’s University

A mastery quiz is a miniquiz given at the start and end of a lecture period used to signal key lecture concepts. It also provides an incentive for focused attention and regular and punctual attendance. Students earn points toward their fi- nal grades for submitting correct responses at either or both testings. Introductory psychology students showed signifi- cant improvement in knowledge of mastery quiz content as assessed by pre–post lecture comparisons. Credits earned on mastery quizzes also predicted performance on course ex- amination questions measuring signaled concepts and other concepts from lectures on days that mastery quizzes were administered.

Vexing challenges facing classroom instructors in- clude absenteeism, tardiness, and inattention. Whereas regular attendance and punctuality are essential for continuity of instruction, focused attention is a nec- essary component of the encoding process needed for newly learned material to be incorporated into mem- ory (Iidaka, Anderson, Kapur, Cabeza, & Craik, 2000). Lateness is also disruptive to lecture flow and general classroom environment. The mastery quiz is a pedagog- ical tool that provides an incentive for regular, punc- tual attendance and focused attention during class. The mastery quiz is an unannounced spot quiz that is pre- sented twice during class, once at the beginning of the lecture period and then again at the end. Teachers in- form students that the concept(s) tested by the quiz will be covered during the course of the lecture, but they do not tell students when during the lecture the material is discussed. Unlike traditional spot quizzes, the mastery quiz provides an opportunity for students

to acquire knowledge of the tested concept or concepts during the lecture period.

The incentive consists of a point or points earned toward final course grades for (a) participating in both prelecture and postlecture quizzes, and (b) providing a correct answer or answers on either or both test- ing occasions. Mastery quizzes provide an incentive for regular attendance and punctuality because they are administered on an unscheduled basis throughout the semester, and students must arrive on time to par- ticipate in the prelecture quiz. The mastery quiz also provides an incentive for students to stay alert and fo- cus their attention during the lecture so that they have the opportunity to learn the tested concept(s) when introduced.

Previous research demonstrates that signaling key information is associated with enhanced retention of cued information, and might also aid students by helping them better organize and synthesize new ma- terial (Nevid & Lampmann, 2003; Scerbo, Warm, Dember, & Grasha, 1992). Prelecture quizzes have also been found to enhance student performance on midterm and final exams (Geiger & Bostow, 1976) and to increase perceived clarity of lecture material (Narloch, Garbin, & Turnage, 2006). In addition, Narloch and colleagues found that students who were administered a prelecture quiz were more likely to ask higher level questions during the lecture than students who did not take the quiz. However, Narloch and colleagues did not assess the potential for prelecture quizzing to act as a signaling device for mastering key concepts.

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This study examined the effects of mastery quizzes on knowledge of cued concepts in an undergraduate introductory psychology course. We hypothesized that students would show better performance on postlec- ture quizzes than prelecture quizzes and that mastery quiz points earned would predict better performance on course examination questions assessing knowledge of signaled material and other (nonsignaled) material discussed in the same lectures as signaled content.



We administered six mastery quizzes, each consist- ing of a single multiple-choice question presented at both the start and end of the day’s lecture, and sched- uled periodically on an unannounced basis throughout the semester in an introductory psychology class at a large, Northeastern metropolitan university. The class met twice weekly for 85 min for a period of 15 weeks. The class consisted of 61 students (44 women, 17 men; 50 first-year students, 7 sophomores, and 4 juniors). Mastery quizzes were part of the evaluation criteria in- corporated into the course requirements as specified on the course syllabus. We obtained permission from the university institutional review board to use stu- dent performance in the course to measure effective- ness of the mastery quizzes. We tested the following key concepts on the mastery quizzes: neural depolarization, role-playing model of hypnosis, acoustic coding, gender differences in math ability, criteria for defining abnor- mal behavior, and the general adaptation syndrome.

Data Analysis

We first assessed performance (correct vs. incor- rect) on the six mastery quizzes at the prelecture and

postlecture assessments. We then analyzed relation- ships between mastery quiz points earned and per- formance on selected items on course examinations (midterm and final exams). We used a multiple-choice format for both mastery quiz and course examination questions. We examined correlations between mas- tery quiz points earned and three sets of comparison questions drawn from the midterm and final exami- nations. The first set, representing signaled content, comprised questions measuring the same concepts as- sessed by the mastery quizzes but worded differently in the examinations. The second set, representing gener- alization content, comprised items assessing knowledge of other (nonsignaled) concepts discussed during lec- tures on days that mastery quizzes were administered. We reasoned that if mastery quizzing cued attention during lectures, then signaling effects would general- ize to other lecture material not directly signaled. The third set of items were control items, which were ran- domly selected questions assessing concepts discussed during lectures on days other than those when mastery quizzes were administered. We also examined corre- lations between class attendance on mastery quiz days and exam performance, as well as between mastery quiz points earned and exam performance.


We only included students in the analyses who took both the midterm and final exams, which reduced the final data set to 52 students. We present evidence of mastery of quiz content in Table 1. Although most students failed to answer the mastery quiz item cor- rectly on all but one of the prelecture quizzes, a strong majority, more than 90% of students on most quizzes, correctly answered the same item when tested on the postlecture quiz.

Table 1. Prelecture and Postlecture Performance on Mastery Quizzes

% Correct

Mastery Quiz No. Prelecture Postlecture χ2 df p % Attendance

1 10.2 80.2 108.41 1 < .001 94.2 2 12.8 68.1 63.48 1 < .001 90.4 3 26.1 95.7 101.72 1 < .001 88.5 4 41.7 97.9 74.92 1 < .001 92.3 5 50.0 92.9 45.11 1 < .001 80.8 6 46.5 93.0 51.24 1 < .001 82.7

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To earn a mastery quiz point, students needed to meet three criteria: (a) attend class on mastery quiz days, (b) arrive in class in time to submit a response to the prelecture quiz, and (c) submit a correct response at either prelecture or postlecture testing. In the correla- tional analyses, we first aggregated mastery quiz points earned, yielding a range of scores from 0 to 6. We also aggregated performance on the three sets of compar- ison questions, which similarly yielded scores ranging from 0 to 6 correct.

We found a significant correlation between mas- tery quiz points earned and performance on signaled exam questions, r (51) = .33, p < .05. We also found a significant correlation between the number of mas- tery quiz points earned and performance on general- ization exam questions, r (51) = .32,p < .05. Support- ing the specificity of the signaling effect, we found no significant relationship between mastery quiz points earned and performance on the randomly selected set of exam questions, r (51) = .07, p > .05. Moreover, mastery quiz points earned also related to performance on course examinations overall (i.e., midterm and final examination scores combined), r (51) = .32,p < .05.

Because earning mastery quiz points was dependent on attendance in class, we tested whether attendance alone would predict performance on the examinations overall and on the three subsets of examination ques- tions. These analyses showed no significant relation- ships for overall examination performance, r (51) = .15, p > .05; for test items measuring signaled con- tent, r (51) = .21, p > .05; for test items measuring generalization content, r (51) = .22, p > .05; and for control test items, r (51) = –.03, p > .05. These find- ings suggest that attendance alone did not account for enhanced performance on course examinations or on the signaled and generalization content. Moreover, be- cause attendance was high, averaging 88% across the six class sessions, we were unable to disentangle atten- dance data from mastery quiz performance.


The improved performance on the mastery quizzes by postlecture assessment suggests that mastery quizzes fostered encoding and retention of signaled concepts discussed during the lecture period. We expected stu- dents would be able to answer the mastery quiz item correctly by the end of class if they paid attention dur- ing the course of the lecture when the concept was discussed. We found that greater than 90% of students answered the quiz items correctly at postlecture testing

on the last four quizzes. However, a sizable minority in the first two quizzes failed to provide the correct an- swer by postlecture assessment. This type of feedback may be instructive in determining whether additional review of targeted concepts is needed.

We also found significant correlations between mas- tery quiz points earned and performance on examina- tion questions assessing both signaled content and gen- eralization (nonsignaled) content discussed during the same lecture period. Thus, signaling effects may extend beyond the cued concepts themselves. Moreover, the lack of a significant correlation between mastery quiz points earned and performance on control questions on examinations provides additional evidence supporting the signaling effects of mastery quizzing.

Clearly, mastery quizzing is not a quick fix for prob- lems of poor attendance, tardiness, and inattention during class. Indeed, research suggests that disposi- tional variables such as conscientiousness are more pre- dictive of attendance than are instructor-provided in- centives (Conard, 2004). Although this study was not intended to measure effects on attendance, other inves- tigators found that unannounced quizzes can help im- prove class attendance (Kouyoumdjian, 2004; Wilder, Flood, & Stromsnes, 2001).

Mastery quizzing offers instructors a pedagogical tool to cue students to attend to important concepts and provides incentives for students to attend class regu- larly and punctually. Anecdotally, we found that many students expressed favorable attitudes toward mastery quizzing, which is opposite to the typical reaction of students to other types of unannounced spot quizzes. Many of the students in our sample reported that they liked the opportunity to earn a point toward their fi- nal grades during the lecture period, a phenomenon that Thorne (2000) also reported. Other investigators found that extra credit quizzes not only improve at- tendance, but that students perceive them favorably (Wilder et al., 2001).

This study was a preliminary investigation of the ef- fects of mastery quizzing that leaves a number of ques- tions to be pursued in future research. For example, more frequent mastery quizzes may produce greater ben- efits than the more limited use of six mastery quizzes in this study. Second, we need to determine whether pre– post mastery quizzing is more effective in cuing atten- tion than postlecture-only testing. Another limitation of this study was the use of one-item quizzes. Single- item mastery quizzes might differentially cue students to attend to the particular point in the lecture in which the specific concept is discussed. Although one-item quizzes are more economical in terms of time needed

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for administration, the use of multiple-item mastery quizzes might enhance both focused attention and sig- naling effects.


Conard, M. A. (2004). Conscientiousness is key: Incentives for attendance make little difference. Teaching of Psychol- ogy, 31, 269–272.

Geiger, O. G., & Bostow, D. E. (1976). Contingency- managed college instruction: Effects of weekly quizzes on performance on examination. Psychological Reports, 39, 707–710.

Iidaka, T., Anderson, N. D., Kapur, S., Cabeza, R., & Craik, F. I. M. (2000). The effect of divided attention on encod- ing and retrieval in episodic memory revealed by positron emission tomography. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 267–280.

Kouyoumdjian, H. (2004). Influence of unannounced quizzes and cumulative exam on attendance and study behavior. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 110–111.

Narloch, R., Garbin, C. P., & Turnage, K. D. (2006). Ben- efits of prelecture quizzes. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 109– 112.

Nevid, J. S., & Lampmann, J. L. (2003). Effects on con- tent acquisition of signaling key concepts in text material. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 227–230.

Scerbo, M. W., Warm, J. S., Dember, W. N., & Grasha, A. F. (1992). The role of time and cuing in a college lecture. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 17, 312–328.

Thorne, B. M. (2000). Extra credit exercise: A painless pop quiz. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 204–205.

Wilder, D. A., Flood, W. A., & Stromsnes, W. (2001). The use of random extra credit quizzes to increase student at- tendance. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 28, 117–120.


Send correspondence to Jeffrey S. Nevid, Ph.D., De- partment of Psychology, St. John’s University, Queens, NY 11439; e-mail:

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