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Teaching with Trivia

Page history last edited by Angela Kelling 8 months, 2 weeks ago Saved with comment

Contributed by

Kristie L. Campana

Minnesota State University, Mankato


One of the more common requests I receive from students is for an exam review. For example, students often ask me to provide a list of key words or concepts, and go over this list in detail in class. Other students ask that I provide example exam questions complete with a key that they can review before the test. More commonly, students ask me to prepare a game that allows them to shout out answers. I am certainly not the only instructor who receives these requests; articles from a variety of disciplines demonstrate how instructors have designed exam review games that mimic Jeopardy! (Keutzer, 1993), crossword puzzles (Davis, Shepherd, & Zweifelhofer, 2009), Survivor (Burks, 2011), and BINGO (Sutterluety, 2002).

In the past, I have been reluctant to devote class time to many of these review activities. Study guides, which I refuse to post until a week before the exam, seem to encourage my students to wait until the last minute to study, and to focus on learning only content that will be tested. Likewise, I am willing to post a few example exam items, but students tend not to use these effectively to gauge the gaps in their knowledge. Games seem at least more engaging and fun, and have been demonstrated to promote learning (e.g. Paul, Hollis & Messina, 2006). However, preparing these games is often an onerous task.

For example, the use of a Jeopardy activity required me to find an appropriate PowerPoint template, fill in answers, find a way to have groups “buzz in” in a way that I could identify who was first, add points, track which questions had already been answered…. Ultimately, I became frustrated with this activity because I felt that I was putting in more time preparing this activity than my students were spending reviewing the material.

Furthermore, while my students enjoyed this activity, I did not feel it was as beneficial as it could be. Students often tried to stack their team in such a way that they would identify the smartest student, and rely on him or her to answer all the questions with no input from the rest of the team. If I offered no incentive, students frequently became disengaged; however, if I offered extra credit points, the students focused on issues of fairness or cheating.

This is not what I wanted in a review activity. I wanted a game that would give them time for discussion, reflection, and persuasion before they submitted their answers. I wanted a game that would whet their appetite for competition, but would still draw their attention to understanding and learning the content, not on the minutia of gameplay and rules. As I considered what activities might better fit these goals, I hit upon an idea that was seemed so obvious, I was embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it years ago: Trivia.

Trivia has experienced a great deal of growth in the past decade. Enterprising bars are offering a trivia night to ramp up their profits on traditionally slow Tuesdays and Wednesdays (Pagels, 2014), and apps such as Trivia Crack, QuizUp and Sporcle are popular among today’s college students (Tweedie, 2015). In the spring of 2015, I decided to try out a trivia review activity in my upper-level Survey of Industrial-Organizational Psychology course.

Preparing Materials for Trivia

To prepare this activity, I worked with my textbook exam bank to devise short-answer questions that would appropriately test students on the content for their first exam. Although my tests are mainly multiple choice and essay, I liked the idea of asking students to come up with short answers, because this would prove slightly harder than the exam, and would help them identify key words or concepts they had forgotten or misunderstood. For our first session, I designed 2 rounds, with 10 questions each. I created an answer form with room for answers for 10 questions and a spot for a team name. I also designed PowerPoint slides with one question per slide; these slides automatically advanced every minute, with built-in “intermissions” to allow me time to score their forms after each round.

The first exam was primarily a review of research methods and an introduction to performance measurement. Below are some example questions (and answers) from the slides:

  • Which measure of central tendency will be most affected by an extremely high value? (The mean)

  • If we want to know that all the items on a test seem to measure the same thing, what kind of reliability should we examine? (Internal consistency)

  • What does the coefficient of determination tell us? (Percent of variance explained)

  • What type of research design allows us to determine causality? (Experiments)

  • Sometimes we might examine records such as data sets of test scores or public records. What type of research is this? (Archival)

  • What is the difference between the subjects of Army Alpha and Army Beta? (Soldier literacy)

  • “Number of widgets produced in one hour” is an example of a) Contextual performance b) Objective performance c) Subjective performance (b- Objective performance)

I attempted to provide a range of difficulty on the questions, but I also tried to make the correct answers straightforward to help me score them easily. I also prepared a “tiebreaker” question that required any teams with a tied score to guess a number (“How many members does SIOP have, according to your textbook?”) so that whichever team was the closest would win the game.

Trivia Day

For trivia day, I divided my 20-student class into four groups of five students. I brought 5 donuts into class, and let them know the winning team would receive donuts as a prize—students were visibly motivated by this incentive. I turned on music for the students (I found Pandora’s “Scorpions Radio” provided an appropriate dive bar ambiance), and started the slides. As I walked among the groups, I found that their discussions were intense; members who disagreed about the correct answer had to provide clear rationale for their position, which resulted in some excellent debate about the finer points of the material. Once the slides for the first round ended, I gave students one minute to bring their sheet to me, and then I scored while students took a break, chatted, or continued to debate the correct answers. After students retrieved their scored sheets, we went back through the slides to provide the correct answer and address any common mistakes I noticed and allow for questions or challenges to my answers. We repeated this process for the second round, which resulted in a tie. We used the tiebreaker item, and I awarded the donuts to the team that was the closest.


I continued to use the trivia technique throughout the semester, which gave me some opportunities to tweak the process and reflect on the benefits of the activity. I felt this activity helped to contribute to a more cooperative, collegial environment. Debates within groups were passionate and articulate; during the breaks when I would score sheets, students often would drink coffee and chat with other groups about what they put for their answers. Students would quiet down quickly as I read out answers, although cheers and groans from groups would be common.

Students also were willing to challenge my answers; I welcomed this debate, and although this semester I did not hear any compelling arguments, certainly a strong rationale could earn a group points back and help to educate the rest of the class on the topic. This activity also allowed for some moments of drama during the activity; for example, during our last trivia session, a group that had been the underdog swept the last round and snatched the donut prize away from the group that had been in the lead the entire game.

Repeating this activity gave me the opportunity to experiment with logistics. My class was 105 minutes, and I found I could do 3 or 4 rounds comfortably in this time. I also found that a minute per slide was an appropriate length of time, and students appreciated seeing the items again briefly (10-20 seconds each) so they could double-check their answers. I also found that giving groups 1 minute after the end of the round to hand in their paper was adequate in this small class. It typically took me only a minute to grade their sheets and return them.

Although I implemented this activity in a small classroom, I believe it would be feasible in larger classrooms. Having students hand in and pick up their answer forms, and getting help from a TA or a student in scoring answers would expedite the process. In addition, having a limited number of prizes can ensure the groups stay at a reasonable size; if a group had 6 members, someone would miss out on their donut. Using smart phones to look up answers is certainly an issue, so setting the slides to play automatically can allow the instructor to watch for any cheating in larger classes.

Finally, I believe this activity has potential to help students develop better study habits and active involvement in class if used regularly. Shorter, more frequent trivia sessions might be a helpful unit recap, and instructors who use Team-Based Learning (TBL) could easily incorporate this as an additional exercise for their formed teams. This may also be a helpful activity for instructors who are interested in TBL, but aren’t ready to commit to incorporating it into their classrooms fully. Ultimately, I found this to be a fun and beneficial way to encourage students to be more active in studying and reviewing their material for exams.


Burks, R. (2011). Survivor math: Using pop culture to enhance learning mathematics. PRIMUS, 21, 62-72.

Davis, T.M., Shepherd, B., & Zweifelhofer, T. (2009). Reviewing for exams: Do crossword puzzles help in the success of student learning? The Journal of Effective Teaching, 9, 4-10.

Keutzer, C.S. (1993). Jeopardy© in Abnormal Psychology. Psychology of Teaching and Learning, 20, 45-46.

Pagels, J. (2014). The economics of trivia night. Priceonomics, retrieved from http://priceonomics.com/the-economics-of-trivia-night/

Paul, S.T., Hollis, A.M., & Messina, J.A. (2006). A technology classroom review tool for general psychology, Teaching of Psychology, 33, 276-279.

Sutterluety, A. (2002). Bingo game decreases procrastination, increases interaction with the content. The Teaching Professor, 16, 4-5.

Tweedie, S. (2015). How a trivia app broke the record for the longest streak at the top of the app store. Business Insider, retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-did-trivia-crack-become-so-popular-2015-1


One of the trivia PowerPoint sets, and the score-keeping sheet are linked below:


Trivia Exam 1.pptx                 Trivia Form.docx


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