Teaching Examples

What are quizzes for?
February 18, 2006, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Something I have been thinking about a lot this semester. I left my comfy home environment last year and spent eight months in Malaysia. In addition to all the cultural knowledge I gained there, I also thought a lot about how we teach and what results we should be trying to produce (because I was teaching students in a foreign university, and I was making all kinds of mental comparisons).

When I first started teaching here in Florida, I thought I could structure my courses in a way that did not require me to spend a lot of time grading the students’ work. Well, that didn’t work well. I learned that both undergraduates and graduate students will not do the work unless they know they are getting a grade on it.

This leads me to quizzes and how I am using them now. It seems to be working pretty well.

The quizzes I give in my skills courses are designed to reward a student who has read the assigned readings for that day. These quizzes are tedious to write (for me) and I think they are somewhat tedious for the students to take too. But they seem to achieve the desired result. I can tell that almost all of the students are really reading what was assigned — and that means I can go further and faster in my lecture, and they are better prepared to do the practical work assigned to them.

Now that we have started working on Flash in my advanced Web design course, I even tell them pretty much explicitly (on the online syllabus) what questions I will ask in the quiz. The point is not to trick them, or to make them memorize trivia. The whole point of the quiz is to encourage them to BE PREPARED when they come to class that day.

I was searching online for some kind of guidelines for teachers creating quizzes. I found a lot of technical stuff about quizzes for “online learning” — but very little about how to create a useful quiz. I did find one very informative site, About Tests, from a mathematics professor at the University of South Florida. He covers some really good points. (Be sure to read the part about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That ought to make you think long and hard about what tests do measure.)

Two things that I have concluded:

(1) Whenever possible, make the question a short-answer question. It is very difficult to write truly fair and clear multiple-choice answers for most questions. Short answer also shows whether the student really knew the answer.

(2) Go over the answers in detail immediately after the quiz. Everything a student didn’t know for the quiz is thus emphasized. To reduce the number of beggers (“But I really meant …”) after grading, prompt the students to shout out the answers. It is then obvious to the beggers that there really WAS one right answer.

And finally, as much as I dislike entering all those grades every week, I have found that weekly quizzes work very well for the students. They acquiesce. They quit kidding themselves. They read the assigned texts — because they know they will do badly on the quiz if they don’t.

And then, quite simply, they learn more.

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