Thursday, February 7, 2013

Weekly Quizzes

One of the most significant changes I made to my 400 student Intro to Rome course this spring was to the assessment activities and structure.  I realized that if I wanted to send the mess age to students that, in a history class, learning was cumulative and not something that could be done effectively 48 hours before a midterm exam, I needed to put my percentages where my mouth was.  So I drastically reduced the weight placed on midterm exams and added in 10-minute, weekly quizzes.  The three cumulative midterms are worth 40% of the final grade.  The 9 quizzes (8 of which count towards the final grade) are also worth 40% of the final grade.  My students are very attuned to grades.  They care a lot about them and will, generally, work hard to get a good one.  By setting up the assessment this way, I am taking a characteristic of their learning behavior and using it to try to inculcate good study skills (or, at least, an approach to the course that is far more likely to help them learn the content in the short run and remember more of it in the long run).  I don't love the fact that years of standardized testing has trained my students to be overly focused on outcome, at the expense of the process.  Yet, with a lot of hard thinking and a bit of creativity, I feel like I have found a way to turn that potentially negative learning behavior into a positive.  They care about outcomes, so channel that into weekly studying; and give them weekly feedback on how well their learning strategies are working so that they can make changes (if necessary) before the midterm exam.

In the fall, it was clear that I needed to implement weekly quizzes to motivate the students to stay caught up and, therefore, able to be active and engaged learners.  With weekly quizzes, they really cannot get more than a week behind without significant consequences for their course grade.  It was interesting that, in one of the fall student surveys, a common suggestion for improving the course was to incorporate weekly quizzes.  As well, in information conversations in my office with various students from the fall course, they were clear that they needed the outside motivation of a graded quiz to "force" them to do assigned work.  They knew that it was better for their learning to do the assigned work incrementally rather than try to cram for the exam, but seemed incapable of managing their time in a way that allowed them to avoid cramming.

The real obstacle to incorporating graded, weekly quizzes into the class was logistics.  It is a big deal (and takes about 5-7 minutes) to hand out 400 scantron sheets and then collect them.  It uses a lot of paper, especially if we also hand out copies of the quiz.  I talked to a lot of people about possible ways to administer a short quiz to 400 students.  I was less worried about the time since the spring class is T/TH  (75 minutes rather than 50).  I was more worried about all the paper--including making sure we got the quiz itself back from the students (though, as it happens, I've decided to post them on Bb for the students to review).  Initially, I thought I might embed the quizzes in the Learning Management System and have them take them in class.  My classroom has the technological capacity for that.  Soon enough, though, we realized that a. there were bound to be tech issues ("I can't get online"; "Bb ate my quiz"); and b. we had no way of preventing someone from taking the quiz from another location.  To prevent that would have required something like having the students register their presence with an i>clicker and then us having to compare that to the names of 400 quizzes.  Not reasonable.

Finally, we settled on a fairly basic plan: we would hand out the scantrons and then use a doc cam to project the questions and a PPT slide for images.  This seemed like a good idea in theory; in practice, it didn't work very well, for reasons entirely out of our control.  First, the doc cam could only focus and magnify 2-3 questions at a time and I hadn't worked out the timing for individual questions.  I had to play it by ear (which seemed fine--I gave them more time than they needed).  Second, separating the images from the question meant that we had an image on one screen and the question on another.  The architecture of my classroom made it nearly impossible for large swaths of students to see either the image or the question.  I ended up reading the answer options aloud twice, which was a good bandaid.  Still, after the first quiz, it was clear that we needed to find another way to administer the questions.  Fortunately, one of my TAs (who was with my in the fall as well) came up with the perfect solution: a PPT slide show with timed slides.  This way, we could project everything on both screens at all times.  The images and the questions about them were on the same slide; and I could add timings so that easy questions got less time while harder questions allowed for more time.  This ended up shortening the 12-question quiz to about 8.5 minutes.  This second quiz went very smoothly.  I seemed to get the timing right for individual questions and nobody had any trouble seeing the questions.

With the first quiz we had a somewhat unusual issue--four quizzes went missing.  I have several procedures in place to ensure that, once they are in our hands, we don't lose them without knowing it.  This meant that they must have gone missing during the collection process--a reminder that, even with this, we need to take special care.  An enormous challenge of a large enrollment class is that you can't know if an individual student is lying to you; or really was the victim of some freak circumstance.  In this particular case, evidence is mounting that someone funny happened.  When we ran the scantrons for the second quiz, those four quizzes magically re-appeared.  We know they had to have been added by the students, either the same students or some other student.  It's difficult to know what to do since we can't prove who added the quizzes (perhaps they fell into a student's bag and, rather than giving them to us, he thought he would slip them into the stack?)

More than likely, these four students are trying to pull a fast one, but I do feel like I have to a. let them know that I know; but still let them retake the quiz.  In the future, a TA will leave the room after we collect the quizzes and count them.  And I will be clear that we will only run the quizzes we have in our possession after they are collected.  This episode is a reminder to me of just how much effort, care, and time it takes to incorporate something as simple as a weekly, 10 minute quiz into a large enrollment class.  At the same time, the weekly has proven to be very effective at getting the students--totally unaware of what they are doing--to engage in a flipped class.  In addition, it gives the students substantive and relevant feedback on their learning strategies long before the first midterm.

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