The Use of Online Quizzes in an Introductory Tax Course

By Dann G. Fisher, Ph.D., CPA, and Amy M. Hageman, Ph.D., CPA

Editor: Annette Nellen, CPA, CGMA, Esq.

A few decades ago, it was common to use exams as the single measure of performance in an introductory taxation course. Median scores in the mid-60s on these exams were not uncommon, results that were depressing and frustrating for students and professors. Although students were assigned reading and homework assignments, not all of them kept current with this work if it was not graded. Cramming for exams was commonplace. Questions asked in fits of desperation moments before exams generally foretold poor performance, which contributed to a sense of hopelessness. A pedagogical and cultural change was badly needed.

Through the years, tax return preparation projects were added, and in-class group projects were attempted long before the phrase "flipping the classroom" became widespread (see Franklin, "Flipping the Tax Classroom for a Better Student Learning Experience," 46 The Tax Adviser 852 (November 2015)). In addition, as a means of improving preparation for class meetings, instructors started collecting homework assignments from a random selection of students each class period. Although the latter helped improve students' preparation for class to a degree, some students took advantage of the lottery system, gambling that they would not be selected. Moreover, this system did not allow for immediate feedback and could not be used to plan the current class period's discussion. Yet, homework graded merely for satisfactory effort, selected at random intervals—a very noisy measure of effort—often correlated highly with exam results. Exam results were better than before these changes were implemented, but most of the improvement was achieved by high or above-average achievers. These students likely already had good habits and were merely being rewarded for them. Average students failed to share in the improvement. Too many students viewed homework as a busy-work task.

Measurable improvement finally came when homework was replaced with online quizzes—both pre-quizzes (before classroom coverage of a topic) and post-quizzes (after classroom coverage). The online quizzes make every student accountable for each class meeting, encourage distributed practice (as opposed to cramming) that allows for reflection and correcting errors, inform instructional decisions, and allow the professor opportunities to model decision strategies in the classroom. Exams used in the course today are far more difficult and complex than exams used two decades ago, but performance is vastly superior, with medians around 80% or better ­becoming common.

Implementation of Pre-Quizzes

One of the authors has implemented online pre-quizzes over 10 semesters in an introductory tax course at Kansas State that meets two times per week. Before each class meeting, students are required to complete a five-question multiple-choice quiz on the material assigned for that class meeting. At the beginning of the semester, students are given a detailed assignment schedule that provides a reading list of topics that will be covered for each class meeting, plus information contained in the textbook (including discussion questions and problems), the instructor-prepared class notes, and/or the applicable sections of the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury regulations.

Each quiz is time-sensitive. The pre-quiz becomes available once the third of three sections commences (e.g., 4 p.m. on Tuesday) and must be completed before the first section reconvenes (e.g., 11:30 a.m. on Thursday). Each quiz consists of five questions based on the assigned material. The questions mix conceptual, numerical, and research-related issues (requiring students to review the applicable material in the Code and regulations). All quiz questions are written by the instructor and customized to the covered material.

The questions are randomized to the students and must be completed within five minutes. Each question is worth 0.5 points, so each quiz is worth 2.5 points. Twenty-five pre-quizzes are assigned during the semester. The best scores from 20 quizzes (50 potential points) are included in the student's semester total and constitute 6.5% of each student's final grade. The solution for each quiz and performance statistics are made available after class to provide students with feedback on their quiz performance.

The purpose of the pre-quiz for students is twofold. First, the pre-quizzes motivate students to engage in the course material before the class meetings. Toward this end, the quizzes are designed to achieve a median score of 2.0. Although the questions are far from simple, students feel rewarded for being accountable. Second, the pre-quizzes allow students to reflect on what they have studied and make them receptive to what will occur in the class meeting. The feedback they receive allows students to modify their processes as they seek to improve.

For the professor, the benefits also are twofold. First, all results are reviewed before the classroom meeting, and areas of weakness or common misconceptions are used as guides for the ensuing classroom discussion. Second, the pre-quiz questions are used to model decision strategies. The questions are regularly presented in class and analyzed, and decision processes are discussed. A great deal of student difficulty in the tax area stems from an inability to structure the analysis. Emphasis is placed on schema development so that students have more confidence applying the material to different situations. The focus of the feedback then is on learning and continual improvement, rather than on a grade.

Post-Quiz Follow-Up

Students also complete a post-quiz each week to examine what has been covered in class. The post-quiz is made available each Tuesday night and must be completed before the first class reconvenes on Thursday. Each quiz consists of nine objective questions worth one point each. However, the quizzes are treated as being worth eight points, allowing the students to potentially earn an extra point. The post-quizzes constitute a little over 10% of each student's semester grade.

Having the post-quizzes scored creates an incentive for students to perform at a high level, but because the quizzes allow a margin for error, students come to see the post-quizzes as practice—a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. By being repeatedly quizzed on the material, students are forced to be intellectually honest with themselves. This breaks the destructive habit of believing that something is understood when, in fact, knowledge is incomplete or suspect.

As with the pre-quizzes, ­performance is reviewed by the professor before the next class, allowing for use of class time to correct perceived issues. Many times, the most challenging quiz questions are presented in class, allowing decision strategies to be modeled by the professor and queries to be received from the students. In all cases, a detailed explanation for each question is posted online after class so that students can receive immediate feedback.

Benefits and Uses

The benefits of repeated online quizzes are many. First, students come to class better prepared and engaged. It is common to hear students discussing some of the quiz questions among themselves before class begins. Students are more inquisitive during class and frequently relate what is being discussed or presented back to what they had been asked. In other words, they become active, rather than passive, learners.

Second, by encouraging distributed practice and reducing mass practice (i.e., cramming), students demonstrate increased mastery of the subject matter. The benefit observed is greatest among average students, many of whom discover through this process how to better direct their own learning. Spreading the practice allows students time to reflect on what they are learning, correct mistakes and misperceptions, and begin to internalize what they are encountering. Simply put, each time they work on an issue, a little more becomes clear.

Students need to have opportunities to make mistakes, seek corrections, and even at times to try new and different ways of preparing the material. The use of pre- and post-quizzes allows students to "stair-step" toward the exams. Many of the authors' students have a year gap between the introductory tax course and the tax courses in the Master of Accountancy program. Despite this time lag, the authors observe excellent recall and retrieval by students, providing evidence that the material in the introductory course was ingrained into long-term memory.

Third, student feedback is positive. Although students initially complain about the workload, they embrace the process once they see the benefits. Students have a much greater feel for their progress, and they know where to spend time to improve.

Having been forced away from cramming for exams, students now express a different anxiety as exams near. Many express a concern or even a guilt that they need not do much more to be prepared to perform at a high level. The students need reassurance that they do not have a false sense of security. Continual preparation and improvement have shifted exams away from something to be feared to an opportunity to show how much has been learned. Student contact in the hours before exams has shifted from panicked pleas to be saved to asking for points of clarification. Often, exchanges are at a nuanced level well beyond what is needed for the exam.

In short, online quizzes offer myriad benefits to increasing student knowledge, understanding, and retention in an introductory tax course. Although the authors' experience with these quizzes has been in supplementing a traditional classroom environment, their use would be ideal for the training of technical tax knowledge in the workforce, particularly if this training takes place in an online environment. In online training, participants often have difficulty staying on top of the material and must be largely self-motivated. Implementing pre-quizzes provides a way for participants to stay focused and helps ensure they are mastering the material as it is presented, while post-test quizzes are a useful review for participants to identify gaps in their knowledge.

Overall, these types of online quizzes are useful for instructors at any level—both in college and in the broader workforce—who may struggle to identify misconceptions in their students' learning. Various software tools are available for creating quizzes. Typical classroom online platforms, such as Blackboard, include quiz tools.   

Editor notes: This column is based on a presentation the authors made at the February 2015 midyear meeting of the American Taxation Association in Washington.



Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. Dann Fisher is a professor and the Deloitte & Touche Faculty Fellow, and Amy Hageman is an associate professor, both in the Department of Accounting in the College of Business Administration at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Fisher at or Prof. Hageman at


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