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Teach Talk 3 -- "I, uh, didn't do the reading."

This summer, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a column in which Brad Thompson, Assistant Professor of Communications at Penn State, claims to have found a solution to the perennial problem of students' not having done their assigned reading: daily quizzes. Thompson gives a two-question quiz in the first two minutes of each class, and the quizzes cumulatively are worth 20% of a student's final grade. The quiz questions are easy (e.g. "There was a diagram on the first page of the reading. What shape was it?"), but students must be present to take the quiz - no make ups. This means to get credit for the quiz, students have to be in class on time - a beneficial side effect of the daily quizzes, Thompson claims.

Is Dr. Thompson's strategy a reasonable solution to a pervasive problem, or an over-reaction to a fact of life in higher education (or somewhere in between)? What do you do to motivate students to turn up for class prepared for the day's work? What strategies do you have for getting students engaged in the day-to-day experience of the course? Have you ever tried anything that DIDN'T work? Is this even a problem at Berry?

Share your experiences by replying to me via this email, and, as always, be sure to let me know if you'd like your comments to be unattributed.

Have a great week!

Jim Watkins, English, Rhetoric and Writing:
I learned a long time ago to make quizzes an important part of my course delivery. While some of us may be inclined to think the best of our students, in fact most will slack off on the readings if they think they're not truly accountable. The two-question quiz described by Thompson certainly has the advantage of brevity, but more detailed quizzes can actually be used to introduce key ideas from the assigned readings and to push students to be careful critical readers (something that apparently can't be said for Thompson's two-question no-brainers). Also, I realized that one of the advantages to Berry's policy of providing student workers to faculty members is that they can be entrusted to grade and record scores for quizzes. This is especially easy for them if you do as I do and write your quizzes in the multiple choice format. Finally, I find that daily quizzes on the front end followed up by random quizzes as the semester continues works the best.

Kris Powers, Computer Science:
I give weekly reading/studying quizzes, which I describe to the students as follows.
Prelab 5%
In preparation for lab work, students undertake an assigned reading with a corresponding set of simple prelab exercises. Some subset of these exercises and/or an in-class quiz over the reading is turned in for credit. This work serves as a foundation for class discussions of initial questions and comprehension difficulties of the associated course material.
PreLab Grading
Because prelab work (reading and/or problem solving) represents learning efforts undertaken before in-class discussion of the material, it will be evaluated in a special way. Each such assignment will be graded on a 3-point basis as follows:
3 - understanding demonstrated is above expected level
2 - understanding demonstrated is at expected level
1 - understanding demonstrated is below expected level
0 - not turned in/failing
An average of 2 or more on these assignments earns 100% credit for the prelab portion of the course grade. An average below 2 earns: (100*average/2)% credit for this portion of the course grade.
Note that an average of 2 is full credit. A really bright student who gets two 3's in a row can "blow off" the next one without hurting their grade (saves them jumping through the hoops). This scheme really makes grading easy.

Also, this work is worth only 5% (there's a separate 5% for participation that includes attendance), but that seems to be enough to have most student engage it. And, I have had student complaints in the past, if they perceived that it counted for too much of their grade.

The biggest problem I have is the balance of "did you read it" versus "did you try to understand it." If I limit myself to the former, they too often end up mindlessly copying information from the book in response to questions I pose. If I go for the latter, the students feel aggrieved that they are expected to accomplish too much on their own.

Charlotte Bond, Finance:
Yes, not reading before class is a problem and I like Dr. Thompson's solution. However, I fear it would create even more work for us, even if the questions are easy. I too give quizzes and have them scheduled on the syllabus. This keeps them up with the material.

In addition I give them homework to do from the book which forces them to read the book. So that the homework answers can be handed out before the quizzes are taken they often have to do homework before we go over the chapter. I tell them I don't grade the homework for correctness. Its point is to get them to read the book and think about the concepts more. All of this has helped test performance tremendously (without me lowering my standards).

Dara Wakefield, Education:
I find it interesting that professors in the United States feel responsible for students' choices and actions. Not that this is bad, but my experiences in Asia (10 years) suggest diligence is its own reward and students get out what they put in. Very few of my Korean colleagues felt responsible for students' participation, choices or behaviors. The notion of a professor being responsible for student motivation was relatively foreign.

I am not certain that coercion raises the level of long-term (real) learning for the student. Learning is a little like loving others, if your heart isn't in it, its fairly meaningless. Humans appear to remember (learn) things for two reasons: 1) necessity for survival and/or 2) enjoyment. Other motivations tend to generate temporary results. I suppose that pushes us to make our disciplines relevant and enjoyable.

Another thing I learned in Asia was the Middle Path, or Tao. Harmony may be in balancing the "yin" of student responsibility for learning with the "yang" of responsible, engaging teaching. We probably do well to let students reward themselves with the self-esteem (and good grades) that accompany personal discipline and effort. We also do well to make our areas of study relevant and stimulating.

Don Bettler, Biology
I have been giving a weekly quiz for a while now. I agree with Charlotte about a quiz being a waste if it is a piece of cake. I give a ten point quiz, with questions written almost as hard as an exam. I usually steer away from understanding difficult concepts for the quiz, but tell students that the questions are very much like my exam questions. The quiz is ALWAYS over the reading for the week ahead. Not material we have covered in class. There are usually 12 quizzes, and they can drop their lowest two. So by the end of the semester, the quizzes add up to the equivalent of one exam. This rewards diligent students. As a matter of strategy, I make the first quiz very tough. And grade it very tough. This scares them into studying harder. Then I ease up on the second and third quizzes. Then get tough again. By then it’s time for the first exam. They have had four quizzes, and seen about twenty questions in my style. They know enough not to be thrown by the first exam.

The quizzes ensure that the students study hard each week. They have to have a basic comprehension of the material before walking into class. This allows me to teach a class of forty plus students via small group discussion, not lecture. When I do lecture, it is to give short summaries of what they are discussing in their groups. These lectures are presented to students that have been over the material as many as four times before I say anything: once in preparation for the quiz, once on the quiz, once when I give the answers to the quiz, and once in their small groups. For really difficult or central concepts, this is my goal. So there is no way I am going to waste my effort on a namby-pamby quiz. I want my students prepped well.

A byproduct of all of this is that it helps avoid cramming for the exam. They essentially have to study for a test every week. So studying for the exam is more review.

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