I’ve been teaching undergrads now for seven years (with a semester off here and there for maternity leave). A semester has not gone by when I haven’t noodled around with some property of my teaching or other. I’ve been super-strict, I’ve been super-lenient. I’ve chalked and talked, I’ve discussed. I’ve PowerPointed, I’ve blackboarded. I’ve required group work, I haven’t required group work. I’ve written syllabi that were basically contracts, I’ve written ones that were brief and open-ended. I’ve banned laptops, I’ve allowed them. I’ve counted participation, I’ve not counted it.
There was one single change that made by far the most dramatic difference. Weekly quizzes!
I got the idea a couple of years ago after reading a study on the benefits of quizzes. Before then, I’d considered quizzes somewhat silly, vaguely paternalistic, and more appropriate for other kinds of classes than philosophy, except logic. After reading the study, I thought it was worth a shot. I made weekly quizzes worth 10% of their grade and dropped the lowest score. Basically, the students could totally bail on 2 or 3 of them without any significant effect on their final grade.
Attendance shot way up and stayed up. More students obviously did the reading and paid attention in lecture. The quality of papers soared as well. For some reason, they find quizzes incredibly (irrationally) motivating. Participation grades could be a higher percentage of their final grade and they still won’t show up to class or do the reading. The same person who will hand in lazy paper worth 25% of her grade will freak out if she misses or fails a quiz. Students who are failing see it earlier and drop earlier. I’m not sure why they are so sensitive to quizzes, but they are. Moreover, there’s something about quizzing that definitely seems to focus them and significantly improve their recall and understanding.
Every semester since I’ve started them, students mention them on evaluations very positively. They appreciate that it keeps them on their toes and they know what I’m looking for. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback on quizzing once.
Best of all, it takes me maybe 20 minutes a week to write up a true/false quiz and Blackboard does the grading (I hate many things about Blackboard, but that’s one nice way to use it). So it’s next to no effort for a drastically improved lecturing experience and student outcome. Love it.