Efficient teaching: ungraded quizzes


One principle in teaching is that students need consistent feedback on their performance. They need to know how they’re doing, and use these data to adjust how, and how much, they are studying for a course.

The obvious drawback is that frequent assessments take plenty of your time as the instructor — whether in the form of quizzes, exams, homework, or even clicker questions.

How can you get the benefits of frequent assessments without the drawback of having to do it?

You have ungraded quizzes in class.  That is, quizzes graded in class not connected to points.

How does that work? You have a few quiz questions (multiple guess, fill-in-the-blank, short response, whatever). Write them on the board, project them, read them out loud. Make the students write down their responses on sheets of paper.

When the quiz is over (it should take no more than 3 minutes), ask the students to exchange their quizzes with their neighbors. (If they don’t want do, explain that it’s not necessary, just a good idea.) Then, just tell them the answers and have them grade it. Now, tell the students to read over their quizzes then recycle that piece of paper. Let them know that exam questions will look very similar to those questions, and some of them might even be identical.

What makes this different from a clicker question, is that by committing it to paper and having it graded by another person, the evaluation of their performance by someone else feels more formal and it takes the perception of their work outside their own brain.

The students are getting what you need them to get out of a quiz: that they don’t get it well enough. Being able to follow a storyline isn’t the same as being able to explain the story. These quizzes are an immediate reality check for students who might be overly confident before exams.

I also explain this to my students. I explain what metacognition is, and how we have to conscious to think about what we’re thinking about (sensu David Foster Wallace), and that this kind of external check for understanding will give them what they need to know to do well on the test.

I usually do this right at the start of class, because there’s something else that takes 2 minutes that I tend to do at the end of class. More on that another week.

A related factlet: this is a book that lives on my shelf about measuring student performance that I have consulted periodically over the last 12 years. It has lots of good ideas.