How to Build a Quiz Students Want to Take

Written by Roger Osorio

Back in 2012, I heard Jane McGonigal speak at SXSWedu. She spoke about the power of gamification applied to learning. She shared a vision for what learning could look like if we borrowed the principles of game design. She and I spoke briefly at the event and I was inspired to read her book, Reality is Broken.

I took away one critical insight from her book that has helped me in the classroom ever since. In her book she shares that all games must have 4 major elements. Without these elements, the psychology of games does not work.

In other words, what makes us get hooked on a game can be broken down to 4 key principles.


All games must also have a clearly defined outcome. In soccer, the desired outcome is to make the ball cross the white line into the goal. We can all agree on the winning outcome which is also observable by anyone.


All games must have clearly defined boundaries. In soccer and most other sports, the boundaries are usually marked in white paint and are clear for all to see. If the ball crosses these white boundaries then the game is stopped and reset. Another boundary in many sports is time. Soccer has 90 minutes within which the desired outcome must be achieved.

Clearly Defined Rules

All games must have clearly defined rules that everyone agrees to play by. In soccer, there are rules for what constitutes a foul or what disqualifies a goal (i.e. touching the ball with arm or hand, etc.). These rules help us understand how the game is to be played and won.

Feedback Loop

All effective games must have an instant feedback loop. We need to be able to reflect the current score in real time. Fouls, yellow or red cards, goals, out-of-bounds, etc. are all forms of real-time feedback. The score of the game is the ultimate feedback metric.

Building my own math quiz game

In education, most conversations regarding gamification usually focuses on making learning an actual game (i.e. like a video game). However, Jane's principles of any effective game inspired me to think about how we can apply those elements to any and all aspects of teaching and learning. I wanted to bake these into the design of the existing elements of the classroom.

Drawing on the 4 principles of effective games, I designed a quiz that would look just like a quiz but would be grounded in these 4 principles. This is what it looked like.

  • Every week, my middle school math students had 2 quizzes, on the same days of the week.

  • The math quiz contained 40 questions, covering the four functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) on integers, fractions, and decimals. Each function x 3 types of numbers x 4 questions each. That's 36 questions. The last 4 questions were based on whatever topic we were covering in that moment.

  • Each quiz page (4 total) was formatted the same way, week after week. Meaning, for any given quiz, you knew where you could find addition of fractions or division of decimals, etc.

  • For each quiz, students had 10 minutes to answer as many questions as they could. They could go in any order, as long as they answered questions on any of the 4 pages.

  • There were two types of scores. Productivity and Quality. Productivity focused on the number of questions attempted out of 40. Quality focused on the number of correct out of number attempted.

  • The quiz returned 3 scores - Productivity, Quality, and a Composite score based on a (25 / 75 weight of productivity and quality, respectively).

  • Quizzes were all face down until I started the game clock. Quizzes were turned face down when the final alarm sounded.

  • All students received a scorecard at the beginning of the year, with spaces for each round of quizzes and each type of score.

How the 4 Principles Applied to the Quiz

Outcome - answer as many questions, correctly, on the 4 pages as possible. A correct question was defined as one that clearly stated the correct final answer, boxed off to indicate it was the final answer and thus, an official attempt.

Boundaries - Students could expect the same type of 40 questions (with different numbers), on the same pages, with the same white space, in the same order to be answered within the same 10 minutes. It's like counting on the basketball court and baskets looking the same every time you go to compete.

Clearly Defined Rules - Answer as many questions as you can, in 10 minutes. Box your answer in order for it to count as an attempt. No calculators. No partial credit for work. But you'll likely get a fist bump or high five if the work looked good. Sometimes we miss the shot, but the play was actually quite nice (high five, you'll get it next time).

Instant Feedback Loop - my students could measure productivity before they turned in the quiz. Right away, they knew where they stood on that metric. They got the quality and composite scores back after a day (sometimes two). When those scores came back, I gave everyone a few minutes to update their score cards.

The Result?

While I could write pages about the results, it could be boiled down to the following.

My students were significantly more engaged in the quiz, its metrics, and what it meant to their progress. I prepared charts for them to see their three scores moving over time so they could evaluate what it meant and how to improve it. We reviewed the charts during 1-on-1s.

There was one day where I was distracted and overwhelmed by a lot of things going on with my classes. I forgot to print the quizzes out for quiz day for my 6th grade math class. I started teaching, because I didn't realize it was a quiz day. But it didn't take more than 2 minutes before my students asked for the quiz. I realized I had forgotten all about it and let them know. They were disappointed - many were tracking their scores and planning to make some gains that day (or every quiz day for that matter). It was like cancelling a game on the same day. You showed up, uniform on, sneakers on, warmed up and then you are told there's no game.

At that moment, I really understood what Jane McGonigal meant by the power of game design applied to learning.