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Like many instructors, I’ve long used frequent low-stakes quizzing in my courses. Each week, my students answer between three and five questions on each of the assigned readings. Given they have several readings as well as some technical questions, usually there are between 10 and 20 questions total; there’s no time limit for my quizzes, and students can retake them without penalty.

The questions nudge the students toward what I think are the main ideas or the central arguments of the readings. More important, they activate a number of pedagogical techniques to help students remember those main points -- and they are an opportunity to practice skills and pay attention to course policies.

One is prediction: I recommend in the instructions that students take the quiz even before they’ve done the reading. After they’ve taken the quiz that first time, they can see what they got wrong. When they then do the reading, they’re more likely to recognize those correct answers. And, according to recent research on memory, they’re much more likely to remember those ideas.

They can then take the quiz another time, or as many times as they want. I count only the highest grade, which makes the quiz a lower-stress assignment as well as activating the testing effect. Also called the “retrieval effect,” this is the increased ease of learning something if a student has to recall it more than once. Each test of recalling the knowledge leads to an increased likelihood of long-term storage, so repeating the quiz means that students will be more likely to remember the right answers.

My head teaching assistant and I also take special care to make use of interleaving: in Week 3 this year, we asked students to make comparisons between that week’s reading and the readings from Week 1. Even without a knowledge of the pedagogical theory, students get the idea. One said this on an evaluation: “I liked the memory checks! They made sure that we caught the relevant points in the readings.” Another noted that the quizzes “acted both as a reinforcement of knowledge and as a motivation to do the readings well.”

Interleaving isn’t limited to content questions. I also am making more use of skills-focused questions. If one of the week’s skills is recognizing a good argument, I write several questions that ask students about the best summary of an article’s argument.

Most learning management systems allow instructors to put in comments about right and wrong answers, and I frequently use this space to comment on responses, even linking to other resources. For example, in a question about distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, I linked to another university’s guide to both kinds of sources. What results is a blurring of the line between content and skills questions, as I use the week’s content to help students develop skills like finding an argument, recognizing a lit review and assessing primary sources’ validity.

In addition to content and skills questions, I quiz students about course policies. I am sure that I am not alone in receiving scores of emails that, had the student simply consulted the syllabus or the course LMS site, would never have been sent. Rather than hope that this semester students will finally read the policies carefully, I simply quiz them on those policies, often in slightly goofy ways. For example, here is my quiz question about office hours:

For office hours visits to count … [choose the best answer]

  • I could show the TA or course head something I’ve written for them to take a look at.
  • I could talk with my TA about my topic for one of the papers.
  • I could talk about the class in general and how to succeed in it.
  • I could talk to Zach about Led Zeppelin.
  • I could talk to my TA about anything, not necessarily class-related. [If you get to know your TA better, it’s likely you’ll feel more comfortable asking your TA for help when you need it. Also, all of us just need a little extra chatting these days.]

Any of the above would get you credit for office hours. [There's no "correct" or "standard" office hours visit. We want to get to know you better because that helps us help you succeed in this class. That said, we're always happy to talk about specific parts of the class.]

The text in the square brackets is what I paste into the comment boxes revealed to students after they take the quiz. Asking students questions about policies -- and often linking to them in the question -- nudges students toward reviewing what the guidelines are for Zoom call etiquette, absences and extensions, accessible education letters, class civility standards, and many other topics that students will wonder about and (often) email you about without having looked to see if the policy is on the website or the syllabus. These questions can be front-loaded in the semester and repeated in appropriate weeks -- for example, by repeating the question on extensions the week before the first paper is due. (Interested readers can view my master list of “technical,” i.e. noncontent, questions here.)

This semester, many of us won’t have the minutes before and after a class to answer informal questions from students or help them parse the abstract for main ideas. Asking automated quizzes to carry more of the burden of instruction is an excellent way to use the strengths of the digital environment and give us more time to just talk with our students.

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