Better class quizzes and discussion? Roll for initiative, adventurers!

Some things we get aggravated about:

  • Students don’t read for class; or,
  • Students read for class, but in a crappy way that doesn’t focus on what we want them to focus on; so,
  • Students aren’t prepared for what we want to accomplish in class.

The good news is that we know that students, particularly in the millennial generation, crave formative feedback on their progress and want reinforcement that they’re learning what they should. And so, despite their whining, by and large they actually like quizzes! We also know that frequent quizzing actually provides better learning outcomes than fewer summative exams (see, for instance, Roediger and Karpicke, 2006).

So when my friend Margaret posted this short article in Vitae / Pedagogy Unbound by David Gooblar, reminding me of an approach to quizzes I actually use all the time (after I stole the idea from my colleague Ellen), it felt a bit nifty to be indirectly affirmed! When I do this approach to randomized selection of quiz questions announced in advance, I use this virtual Dungeons and Dragons dice-roller — it lets me use more options than the typical 6-side cube (4-siders, 8-siders), channels my inner Dungeon Master and scores me a few desperate pop culture geek points.

Anyway, check this out, continue to check out Pedagogy Unbound, and steal this idea!


Want Students to Come to Class Prepared? Try Rolling the Dice.

For many instructors, myself included, chance is the enemy. I know that I can’t control everything that will happen during class time. But I aim to prepare well enough that, for the most part, things go according to plan.

Yes, there can be happy surprises when a class discussion unexpectedly takes on a life of its own and goes to new and exciting places. But most of the time I worry that if I don’t keep a firm hand on the steering wheel, the class will slip off track, become unfocused, or get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae. Whenever I have a bad class, the lesson I usually take home is that I didn’t prepare enough. I left too much up to chance.

But a couple of tips I recently stumbled upon actually embrace chance as a tool to help instructors encourage active learning and participation among students. These tips suggest that allowing a little randomness into our classrooms can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

The first idea comes from Peter Fernald, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire until his retirement in 2012. Fernald evolved an interesting variation on the surprise quiz that aims to make sure his students do their reading—and that they do it in the “right” way.

During each class period a student must roll a die up to three times. The first roll determines if there will be a quiz on that day’s reading: An even number means there will be a quiz, an odd number no quiz. If that first roll dictates that there will be a quiz, the student rolls again. This roll is to determine which reading the quiz will be on (this can be skipped, of course, if the students have only done one reading).

Then the student rolls a third time, to determine which of six questions the students will have to answer. The students are aware of the questions ahead of time—Fernald used general analytic prompts, inspired by Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, that can be applied to any reading. The quiz entails answering the single question determined by the third roll of the dice; Fernald had students keep their answers to one paragraph of no more than eight sentences.

The key to successful use of the Monte Carlo Quiz—as Fernald titled it—is to create six potential questions that encourage the sort of reading you’d like your students to do. Because students don’t know which question they will have to answer, the Monte Carlo Quiz encourages them to prepare to answer any of the six questions. So how do you want your students to study course readings? You can, like Fernald, offer questions that prompt students to describe the reading’s central thesis or critique its argument with evidence. Or you can craft more discipline-specific questions that revolve around concerns that the class discusses throughout the term.

Announcing the questions ahead of time allows you to take advantage of the learning benefits of frequent quizzes while avoiding the sense that you’re ambushing your students, catching them out for not doing the reading. The element of chance means that there might be a quiz during any given class, thus keeping the incentive for thorough reading always there. But it ensures (barring a freak statistical anomaly) that there won’t be a quiz during every class, which might feel like overkill.

The second tip also involves rolling dice, but instead of determining whether and how a quiz will be administered, here chance dictates which student gets called on during class discussions. Kurtis Swope, a professor of economics at the U.S. Naval Academy, was wary of calling on quiet students to talk in class, but he wanted their input nonetheless. So he began rolling many-sided dice to determine which students would be called upon to respond to his questions.

Swope still makes use of open discussion in which students can freely respond to one another, but he has made the dice-roll a regular part of his classes. By leaving student responses to chance, Swope’s technique encourages all of his students to pay attention and be ready to answer a question at any time. At the same time, the students know the system is random and therefore fair. The instructor isn’t picking on anyone or trying to put someone on the spot. It’s the dice.

Swope reports that the system has generally been successful. It allows him to democratize class time, ensuring that it’s not just the same few overeager students dominating class discussions by responding every time. It also nicely solves the problem of the instructor asking a question and receiving nothing but silence in return. Swope does say that rolling the dice to determine which student responds has led to more frequent wrong answers. But even this apparent disadvantage has led to better discussions, he writes, because the class can then analyze and improve upon such responses.

We all want our students to do the reading, and we all want them to come to class ready to discuss what they’ve read. Making that happen, however, is often a difficult proposition. Fernald and Swope provide techniques that take two tasks that most instructors dislike—administering pop quizzes and “cold calling on students”—and place them in the hands of the gods of probability.

They foreground an important directive—students must be prepared to answer questions about course material, in quizzes or in class discussions—while ensuring that a spirit of fairness and objectivity governs how this directive will be enforced. This seems to me to be a useful goal, one worth leaving to chance.

David Gooblar

David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth, published by Continuum in 2011. He lives in Iowa City and teaches literature and writing at Mount Mercy University and Augustana College.

Find him on Twitter at @dgooblar.


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