Pop Go the Quizzes

kid_testingBack when I first started teaching, I didn’t give quizzes on the readings. I was young, naive, still in graduate school, and not really able to imagine that anyone would skip the reading. Or, I reasoned, if they fell behind they would work hard to catch up and I didn’t want to punish people for being sick or busy. Daily quizzes smelt too much like intellectual baby-sitting for my tastes. I’m sure, too, the lack of daily quizzes reflected my own sense that such things were trivial and not something we needed to do in college. Students choose to attend. That choice (coupled with the tuition bill) would motivate them to do the work.

After a few years of teaching, I changed my tune. I realized that daily quizzes offered us an opportunity to reinforce important moments from the text. Even more importantly, I found students increasingly uncomfortable without the road map quizzes offer. For many students, the quiz reassured them they were “on the right track.”

Mostly, though, what I realized is that too many college students are lazy, walking hormonal teenagers barely removed from high school with frontal lobes that perform about as well as the lights during a tornado. Blink, blink, blink. Quizzes, in so many ways, become these little tasks that either help students up the mountain of knowledge or move them closer to the chasm’s ledge. (I realize I shouldn’t over-generalize. Plenty of college students aren’t lazy.)

My dilemma with quizzes, on some days, exceeds my ability to comprehend it. On the one hand, I do recognize the need and benefit of daily competence-based quizzes that serve the dual purpose of ensuring the student has done the work and helping us build the base of learning. You can’t, for instance, talk about William Faulkner’s ideas regarding the human heart in conflict with itself in “Barn Burning” if you don’t at least know why Ab Snopes burns barns or the setting for the first court trial. Simply put, we need what I tell my students is the cocktail party information. (Of course, I have to then explain what a cocktail party is.) If you’re standing with the boss and her husband, I tell them, and Beowulf comes up in conversation, I want you to at least know Grendel’s mother didn’t really look like Angelina Jolie in gold lamé body paint. (Then I have to reassure them cocktail parties aren’t all literary trivial pursuit contests.) Certainly, these are lower level thinking skills, but, I tell them, we need those before we can climb to the top of Bloom’s Pyramid.

On the other hand, good students already do the reading and the bad students are going to fail the quizzes anyway. One of the things that distinguishes bad students from the rest of us is that bad students don’t tend to do their work, regardless of the consequence. In other words, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen evidence (beyond some anecdotal stories) showing quizzes help motivate students to do the work.

Teaching, at any level, is a delicate balance between the carrot and the stick. (Of course, most kids dislike carrots enough, they may see both as tools of punishment.) Our brains aren’t really designed to learn new things. “Thinking,” Henry Ford once remarked, “is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few people engage in it.” The second part might be a bit harsh, but it’s worth noting that the bulk of our brains are designed around avoiding thought. The goal of our brains, whether we like it or not, is heavily dependent upon memory: most of the problems we solve in any given day are ones we’ve solved before and our brains like it that way. There is safety, literally, in allowing the brain to avoid hard work and remain prepared for survival. It’s hard work to re-wire the way we think.

But the worst part of quizzes, regardless of whether they serve to motivate, educate, or separate, is that I have to grade the damn things. I realize I could automate the process. The LMS our school uses can do such things and if MOOCs really have a way to transform education, it will be via the analytics that allow mechanized grading that can also create new quizzes based on the students’ demonstrated abilities.

But, and I say this as someone who teaches online, I feel compelled to grade each quiz myself (not because I’m a martyr or feel worried some computer will take my job) because if the quiz is intended in any way, shape, or form to teach, I need to know what the student misses and how he misses. Is it some lazy inclination? A misunderstanding of the question? Is there a pattern to the errors? Are we seeing weaknesses with language, thinking, ability, or effort?

More importantly to the student, I think, is the necessity of receiving some human feedback regarding their efforts. Again, I recognize the possibility of online learning and the value access might have to those who don’t have schools or opportunities. At a base level, computerized grading (and teaching) is efficient and helps students measure how well they can perform a task but learning is about more than just performing tasks. Teaching and learning isn’t about efficiency, I think. It’s about how information is passed person to person and generation to generation. There’s a complexity that works against the industrialized mechanics of automated grading and course delivery.

Not every A or F is created equally and sometimes those quiz answers let us see those subtle, individualized differences. It’s just a shame there are so dang many of them to grade some days.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

4 Responses to Pop Go the Quizzes

  1. klyse3 says:

    Coming from a student, I will definitely agree that quizzes provide a much-welcomed benchmark. I get very nervous if my primary grade in a class comes from a huge test or project with nothing to gauge my understanding on ahead of time.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I do understand. The irony is that good students want quizzes (for the very reasons you mention) but don’t really need them and bad students don’t want them but really need them. That’s what makes the use of quizzes and exams so tough. Someday I’ll write about the semester I tried to get rid of grades all together. I thought it would free us up to focus on learning, but it drove my best students to distraction.

  2. jmgoyder says:

    Worst part of the job!

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