Saturday, November 05, 2005

Thoughts on Quizzes

I've found some really interesting academic blogs lately, and I'm a happy Bardiac.

Dr. Crazy has been writing about classroom teaching styles in a continuation of an entry on "Teaching, Grading, and Intimidation." In the second entry, she talks about giving quizzes to her students, a practice which she'd never used in her "Fancy Research University" graduate school teaching. Her quizzes and reasons for giving them sound reassuringly familiar.

I give lots of quizzes in my non-seminar classes, for some of the same reasons Dr. Crazy talks about: Quizzes help students see an obvious benefit for doing the reading. And it's really pretty impossible to do anything other than lecture at blank faces if a class hasn't done the reading in an English class.

Dr. Crazy's post led me to some others, in a sort of multi-blog discussion (a really pleasant find for me!) I was interested to see some of the responses, especially one from Manorama (another interesting blog), which sees quizzes as "policing or fear-driven control." When pressed, I'll confess that some of my students DO the reading because they feel policed or driven by fear of the quizzes. I sort of feel like I'm living and have lived in a world apart from Manorama's experience, or Dr. Crazy's grad school experience, for that matter.

Confessions of a Community College Dean talks about Dr. Crazy's strategy in terms of adjusting to teaching non-elite students. I think his link would be a great read for people going on the job market, since in most fields there are more jobs in non-elite schools than in elite schools. There are all sorts of adjustments when you change school types, at whatever level, and he does a really good job explaining this one.

I went to a Pretty Darned Good grad school, and yet I distinctly remember more than one occasion when I didn't manage to do the reading for a graduate level seminar, and let me tell you, I was one of the more obsessive graduate students around. I gave obsessive a bad name. I know that other graduate students there, including more than a few from Very Elite undergrad programs, didn't always do the reading. The undergrads at PDG university were usually smart, with close to A high school averages, and yet I know they didn't do all the readings for their classes, either. On average, they were usually smart enough to BS in discussions when called on, and unashamed of having skipped the reading. We graduate students at least had the courtesy to be ashamed when caught at it.

But I think I give quizzes for more than the pleasure of discomfiting students who haven't read for whatever reason. On the most important level, if I assign a reading in any class, I think it's worth the students' time to read the material carefully. I value their time, and I don't waste it if I can help it. Careful reading includes not only reading with concentration, but actually taking notes and GASP trying to make connections with other materials and trying to learn!

In fact, I think one of the most important skills students should gain in a college education is knowing how to learn. I recognize that knowledge of learning is going to be, at least in part, very specific to the person learning or knowing. But it's part of my job to try to introduce or hone my students' learning strategies. And I think quizzes help do that.

First, I only give "surprise" quizzes, except that they're no surprise because I tell students to expect them every day. I don't give them every day, but I tell them to expect one on any day. All my quizzes are basic, open notes, and come AFTER I ask students for questions on the reading or whatever, AND try to answer those questions as fully as possible. If someone in the class asks a quiz question, then when I write it on the board, I make a joke about how much the rest of the class owes the lucky questioner. I figure if someone's read well enough to ask a good question, then they should feel GREAT that they asked the question. If others benefit, well, good for them.

In my first year classes, I start the second day of class with a quiz on the reading, though I don't actually collect the quiz. I let the class stew (ok, so I am that cruel), and then ask how people feel about their performance on the quiz. Most people look pretty dismayed and a bit stressed. I have their attention. I hand out a copy of MY notes from the chapter reading, and talk about taking notes on college texts and what we professors expect of them. I point out that I've dated the notes, written information about the course, and included a textual citation. Then I show them that I've linked my notes to page numbers, written definitions and concepts, and included my own questions and comments in [square brackets]. I note a few quirky things I do with notations that are mine, all mine. (And I tell them, right then and there, to put the date and class information on every handout they receive in any class so that they'll be able to put things together when they need to.) In short, I start teaching or honing learning skills.

In my sophomore and upper level classes, I usually don't hand out my own notes (though maybe I really should! Epiphany!), but talk about taking notes on specific kinds of texts. There are strategies for reading and taking notes on plays, poems, and even, heaven forefend, novels, and I'd be nuts to think that my students have absorbed those strategies from the rarefied air of the Humanities Building.

My quizzes, I hope, reward students for practicing good study skills, and so help them further hone those study skills. No doubt, some students actually do reading they otherwise wouldn't because they know I'm likely to give a quiz. And some students still don't do the reading (so much for my much vaunted intimidation value!). But those who've taken good notes are MUCH better prepared to discuss whatever text we're working with, and that makes our discussion more interesting and valuable to those of us involved.

And, on a purely self-interested note: I wish I'd learned to take good reading notes early in my undergraduate career rather than after I'd already graduated. I wish someone had thought to say, "HOLY COW, Bardiac is totally clueless about studying and needs some cluepons!" I had no clue that I totally lacked study skills, either, since I'd done okay in high school and all. (In my real fantasy world, of course, I would have learned study skills in grammar school and high school instead of learning to hate Shakespeare. But that's another post.)

PS. Today I learned to make links a little better. I love learning stuff!


  1. Could you provide an example of a quiz you've used recently, as well as a few notes about the discussion that preceded that quiz? I'm struggling a bit with using reading quizzes in my Freshman Comp classes, and I'd like the samples.

    Also, I love the idea of using your own reading notes as an example of critical/active reading and learning. I'm ruthlessly stealing that idea.

    (incidentally, my blog is over on LiveJouranl; my blogger account is only to post comments such as this)

  2. Thanks for the question, Dindrane.

    I tried to answer it here: