Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur likes to talk about learning as a two-step process: First there’s the transfer of information (from a source of knowledge, like an instructor, to the student), then there’s the assimilation of that information by the student. Since the assimilation step is the more difficult of the two, he argues that it should be tackled during class time, when the instructor and other students are present to help out. Doing so, however, requires shifting the transfer step to occur before class, which means that the usual method of handling transfer—the instructor’s lecture—doesn’t work anymore. Instead, students need to have their first exposure to the course material happen some other way—like reading their textbook.
I have adopted this approach in the mathematics courses I teach. I expect that my students read their textbooks before class, then spend class time participating in a variety of activities (like clicker-facilitated peer instruction) designed to help them make sense of the course material. Okay, okay, I know all the humanities folks who read this blog are rolling their eyes here. “Have the students do the reading before class and then discuss it during class? That’s the bread and butter of our teaching!” That’s true, but in the sciences and mathematics, this turns the traditional approach on its head. And in all fields, there’s still the challenge of motivating students to actually do the pre-class readings! Research indicates that if you simply ask students nicely to do the readings, only around 30% of them will do so. That means that 70% of students are likely to come to class unprepared to engage in the kinds of discussions and activities we use in class. As they say on the Interwebs, #fail.
How to hold students accountable for their pre-class reading assignments? I have found short, online reading quizzes consisting of open-ended questions that are due several hours before class starts to do the job. Most of the quiz questions are meant to help students focus on and make some sense of key concepts from the textbook section. The final question on each quiz is some variety of “What’s one question you have about the reading?” (I’ll have to credit Eric Mazur again on that question.) Students submit answers to these questions online before class, and I grade their quizzes on effort. If it looks like an answer wasn’t typed by a monkey, it usually gets full credit. I don’t think it’s fair to hold students accountable for understanding the course material on a first pass through it, thus the grading on effort. I have found this provides sufficient motivation for about 80-85% of my students to do the reading—and make at least a little sense of it—before each class session.
Moreover, these pre-class reading quizzes allow me to practice what is often called “just-in-time teaching.” I’ll often scan through the student responses—particularly the questions they have on the reading—prior to class, and then adjust my lesson plan to better respond to the students’ particular difficulties with the material. Sure, I know where students in general are likely to struggle with particular content, but each class of students is unique, so it helps to know more precisely where I might take class that day. (The first time I teach a course, this just-in-time feedback on student learning is even more valuable, of course!)
Plus, I’ll occasionally use one of the pre-class reading quiz questions as a clicker question during class, copying a few select student quiz responses in as answer choices to the multiple-choice clicker question. This works particularly well in helping students learn to communicate mathematically, since they often have to select the clearest answer from among several answers that all have merit.
Logistically, how do I implement these quizzes? I used to post them in my local course management system, but I found the system to cumbersome to use for all the usual reasons. Inspired by a talk by Gardner Campbell, I started using a course blog as a “home base” for each of my courses about a year ago. I find it much easier to post course documents to a WordPress blog, and I like that it makes my course more open to those not enrolled in it. Plus, thanks to some advice I received on this very site, I create a Facebook fan page for each of my courses that pulls in the course blog content via RSS. This allows my students to become “fans” of the course (on Facebook if not in real life!) and keep up with course news from their favorite social networking site without having to “friend” me on Facebook. So I now post my pre-class reading quizzes on my course blogs, tagged with a “PCRQ” for easy locating. I put the reading assignment, three or four questions, and a due date in the body of the post, and I ask my students to answer the questions in the comments. Students need not use their real names in their comments (beware FERPA!), but if they use pseudonyms, they have to let me know which ones they’re using.
Last summer, I taught a course on the history and mathematics of cryptography, and most of my pre-class reading questions were very open-ended “what’s your opinion on X?” or “do you agree with the author’s statement Y?” kinds of questions. These questions permitted multiple defensible answers, so I used the default comments feature on WordPress to have students reply to them. This meant that students could read each other’s answers, which, for these questions, only enhanced the learning experience. In fact, students would frequently reply not just to the questions, but to their peers’ comments as well. Here’s an example. However, for my more traditional math courses, I’m often asking pre-class reading questions that have one correct response each. Having students read their peers’ responses to the questions would rob the students of the experience of grappling with the content on their own. So I looked around for a way to have students comment on posts semi-privately—where I could see their comments but they couldn’t see each other’s comments. I found a WordPress plug-in called, appropriately, Semi-Private Comments! (Plug-ins—yet another reason I prefer WordPress to a course management system.) After installing this plug-in, I could select on a per-post basis to make the comments for a post “semi-private.” Doing so required my students to take one extra step in the commenting process: They were required to create a login account on my course blog. Once they did, however, they could post semi-private comments in just the fashion I wanted.
WordPress’s comments feature allows me to implement pre-class reading quizzes very easily. The main limitation is that it doesn’t help me grade those quizzes. I must pull up each pre-class reading quiz post and scan through the comments, denoting on a printed course roster which students answered the questions that day. I then transfer that data into the Excel spread sheet I use to manage course grades. With 20-30 students, this is a quick process, but it doesn’t scale well to larger courses, unfortunately. It’s worth noting, however, that WordPress lets you search your blog’s comments, which has helped greatly when I needed to double-check how many quizzes a particular student completed.
Do you have your students engage in pre-class assignments? How do you hold them accountable for doing so? Do you use a tool that scales up well to larger classes?
Image by Flickr user moriza / Creative Commons licensed