Monday, September 08, 2008

Quizzes and Worries

I graded my second set of quizzes from a class this afternoon. I know a lot of folks find reading quizzes infantalizing, and I sort of get it, but I don't think being asked questions is infantalizing, especially if you've got reason to know the answers. I also think it's incredibly important for college students to learn to keep up on readings, take good notes (my quizzes are open notes), look up words in a dictionary, and read questions carefully. And it's really painful to try to hold a discussion with people who aren't at all prepared. So I give quizzes, especially early on in the semester.

I try to give quickish quizzes, about three questions, the first one or two very focused on a definition or the main point of a reading. For example, I might ask, "What does [author's name] mean when she uses the term [term that's defined in the text] ([page number in text of definition])?"

And then I try to give a question that calls for some thought and justification. For example, I might ask something like, "which of the items [the author] lists do you think is most important and why?")

Mostly, my students did well, full credit on all three questions. Some didn't answer any questions correctly.

It's always interesting to ask why someone didn't answer questions correctly, especially on an open note reading quiz. I never worry if I ask and someone says s/he didn't have time to do the reading, or didn't take notes because the TV was on, stuff like that. I figure the student has an opportunity to learn my expectations and can make decisions about how to proceed. And I recognize that I'm not exactly the center of the world, and that students have lots of other classes and responsibilities.

I confess that I find it a little irritating when a student who hasn't done the reading writes a BS answer, because it feels like it takes more time to read the BS than the student bothered to spend on the homework. I'd much prefer a student just write a short note saying s/he didn't do the reading, sorry. My feelings aren't hurt, and my time isn't wasted.

I worry way more that some students don't actually have the reading skills to be in college; maybe they can't really process the class readings even though they've put in effort. I don't know quite what to do about the problem of inadequate literacy. I don't know how to teach reading skills, even if I wanted to. And I don't know that a student can really "catch up" in college courses if his/her skills aren't basically at beginning college level already.

I also worry about students who can't seem to interpret quiz or exam questions, though I feel that I can help students with these skills (and that it's part of my job to do so). Similarly, I work with students on notetaking skills a little, and try to get them over to talk to the folks at the skills office to help more, if they seem shakey on notetaking.

So now I'm at the point of writing little notes to the students who did very poorly, asking if they missed doing the reading, or if they need help. It's hard to word those little notes well without taking a long time to write them.


  1. I just gave an ungraded quiz -- I told my students that it helped them know if they were getting what I wanted them to get, and me if I was doing my job. I then told them that I'd use similar questions on the midterm, except they would need to provide evidence.

    But yours is an interesting approach!

  2. I've found that I have to teach reading skills in my music history classes. Our music majors are some of the strongest students at the uni but often struggle to retain the information. (I'll admit the book makes for some tough reading.)

    I've taught them to read with a pencil in hand, taking notes in the margin (or on a separate page if they need to sell back the book). At the end of every paragraph, I suggest that they come up with a short phrase that summarizes the paragraph. If they can't tell me what the paragraph is about -- IN THEIR OWN WORDS -- they obviously need to re-read it!

    (So many of my students have been trained to spit back the definitions, word for word from the book. But if I can get them to come up with their OWN descriptions, they seem to retain the info better.)

    Our textbook has outlines on the publisher's website. Some of my students like to print out the outlines and read those first. Others like to create their own outlines while doing the reading.

    I've also taught some of them to divide their page in two. On the left they write a term or a concept; on the right, they give the definition or comments. That works well both for note taking in class AND while doing readings.

    Over the years I've come to realize that my students don't know how to approach a college text. They don't pay attention to the table of contents, the index, the "sidebars" or charts, the glossary, the index, the appendix, or the intros and conclusions to each chapter. So I get them to open the book and tell me what's in it. They usually get a funny look and confess they've never paid attention to "those parts" of the book before! (Yes, and this is with my juniors!)

    I hope some of these ideas help!

  3. I give reading quizzes (open notes, 4 questions, much like yours) in every class & I always explain, on day one, and then around day 3, why I'm doing it: to teach you to be scholars, I say. You learned to read at five or six, I say; but now you need to learn to read like a scholar. That's what these quizzes are designed to teach you: that's why I let you use your notes, that's why I'm asking these specific questions I'm asking. Pay attention to what questions get asked, you'll learn what notes to take.