Trivia Quizzes for Learning

Can a quiz help you learn content? Yes…if it’s low stakes and you can repeat it. I was reminded of this when my colleague Brett Bixler sent this link to a European geography game from Lufthansa. This one is really fun because you have to point to a given city on the map before the plane “lands”.

The challenge builds from giving you cities and national borders to just national borders then finally a blank map of Europe in the background. I can guarantee that if you play this enough, that not only will you learn where Hanover is, but where it is in relation to Cologne and Hamburg. It’s about the quickest way to learn German geography without actually flying to Germany.

But I have to say that you don’t need Flash or sophisticated game play to take advantage of this. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about African American history by testing an interactive quiz designed for that course. I knew I could get a perfect 10 pretty quickly by memorizing the answers.

The more I see games, the more I appreciate the factor of motivation in learning. Sometimes you learn, not to learn but in order to beat the system and gain point. It’s somewhere between pure intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for me. I would be curious about retention, but I bet something does stick. I definitely remember pivotal answers (both right and wrong) from my high school trivia competitions. Some were actually those learned from my team mates who knew better than me in sports (there is peer to peer learning here), but many were actually mistakes I made (D’oh!).

I would add that I think there’s an art to writing trivia questions. Questions asking just for canned answers (e.g. What’s the French word for “again”?) are boring, but those that ask you to guess based on dropped clues can be interesting (What French word for “again” is used to refer to a request for a repeat performance? Answer: Encore).

I think that’s one reason why Jeopardy is so watchable. Even if you don’t know, you have a fair chance of guessing in many cases, and guessing does often involve synthesizing information. When I do remember my correct answers from that long ago, they were usually the good guesses (because I triumphed over pure memorization).

As I’m writing this, I do realize that there are limitations. First, trivia games generally appeal to a certain “trivia geek” who usually DO have lots of random information memorized and are building on it for more complicated answers. The European map game is fun for me because I have a certain knowledge of European geography, but could be totally frustrating to someone with absolutely no knowledge (or no interest) of European geography whatsoever.

I think there are a lot of people who will enjoy this game, but I can imagine someone in a course uninterested in the content who will be uninterested in the game. Or will they?
I did actually use a “game” where I asked students to guess what language a blue patch of non-English speakers somewhere in the U.S. might mean. Even though the class didn’t always get the right answer, I think most found the challenge interesting (especially since no grades were attached). The game also showed where some low level knowledge (e.g. knowing state borders) was useful to know.

Could the spirit of competition (or challenge) help students find the trill of academic victory beyond the trivia buffs? A lot of educational theory speaks to the benefit of cooperation, but maybe a little friendly competition isn’t so bad either (especially between teams). It could be more interesting than listening to another 5th grade “My Presentation About A Random State” presentation.

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