Friday, May 18, 2012

The value and cost of student reading quizzes

Following the example of some of my colleagues this semester I have started doing pre-lecture reading quizzes for my second year undergraduate course on Thermodynamics and Condensed Matter. Here is how it works.

A reading on the subject of the lecture (usually a Section from the textbook by Schroeder) is assigned.
A brief quiz of 2-4 questions is placed on Blackboard. These can be multiple choice and/or brief essay. The aim is to "force/encourage" students to engage with the text, think about the material, and be better prepared for the lecture. Reading the quiz results before the lecture provides some useful feedback on students levels of understanding and misconceptions. The occasional question, "What don't you understand in the reading?" provides useful feedback to the lecturer who can try and address these in the actual lecture.

The marks/grades for the quiz contribute a small amount to the formative assessment. This seems to be enough to motivate the majority of students to take the quizzes. However, it seems that about 30-50% of the class don't bother. A similar fraction don't bother to come to the lecture, which is serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Overall, I think this is a successful and worthwhile exercise. It is encouraging to see some of the students really do put the effort in and you see how they are wrestling with the material. I have been encouraged by the depth of some of the questions I have gotten in lectures which I think reflect this.

Although, valuable we should be mindful of two significant costs associated with this exercise.

First, it all takes time: designing the questions, uploading them on Blackboard, downloading the responses, assigning grades, reading the responses, and figuring out how to modify the lecture.
Blackboard will mark multiple choice quizzes automatically. For the essay questions, a graduate student, Chao Feng, has written nice software that allows one to look at all the responses in a convenient format. Nevertheless, it still take time.
A minimum of several hours a week is required. To do it really effectively one may need to devote one day a week. I don't know where I or others would find the time...

Second, are we actually hurting the students. I wonder whether this is just another exercise in babysitting students and fear-driven learning. Every year we see to be giving more and more small items of assessment to motivate students to engage with the course and learn something. But, they aren't in high school anymore. Hopefully, sometime in their life they are going to grow up and learn to be responsible, independent, and quasi-disciplined adults who do things because they actually want to or at least because they realise there is some benefit from doing it...


  1. This is an interesting idea Ross.

    When teaching undergrad courses, I typically give regular unannounced quizzes that tally up to about 10% of the total course grade. The aim is to motivate students to stay on top of the material and also come to class. I give several more quizzes than are needed to get the 10% grade and always drop the lowest quiz score, so there are no issues with having to make adjustments for people being away from class for illness/family illness/pet illness etc etc. The quizzes also give me a useful way of seeing what the students actually understand.

    Have you experimented with covering some material in your couse by only have it in the reading (and not touching on it at all in lectures except to point out that the topic is covered in the reading?). I do this to a small extent and have been surprised how effective it is.

    One more anecdote: I have talked with undergrads who seemed genuinely surprised that they should read the textbook for their course. These are students in a demanding discipline in a very selective US university. So at the risk of babysitting, there seems to be some value in telling students "obvious" things like "you need to read these sections in the book".

  2. Hi David,
    The idea of "surprise" quizzes sounds like a good idea, particularly for motivating students to actually attend lectures. I know Vladimir Dobrosavljevic (Florida State) once told me that he found this quite effective.
    I have not had topics that were only covered by reading. However, for Solid State Physics (4th year condensed matter) I sometimes do not do all the details of a derivation (e.g. Hartree-Fock theory) but refer students to the book (Ashcroft + Mermin). Exam questions will occassionally require students to be familiar with the derivation.

    Thanks also for the anecdote about students being surprised that they should read the book. I think that even at good universities there are significant numbers of students who get by without reading books or using the library. This is an important life skill they need to learn and so it is good if we can encourage/force them to.

    In all my lectures I always give the relevant reading.