Efficient teaching: frequent assessments


If your teaching is at least modestly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning (and, I dare suggest, it should be), then you are probably aware that frequent assessments are a good thing. Students learn better when they have more opportunities to find out if they’re learning what is being taught.

But — as Meg Duffy pointed out last week — some teaching practices are effective but may not be sustainable because they might just require so much work from professors. This resonated with a lot of people. A lot of us apparently feel a genuine tradeoff between our capacity to teach effectively and the amount of time that we are expected to invest into teaching each of our courses.

I’ve used the phrase “efficient teaching” to describe how we can maximize the educational bang for the buck — how we can find teaching approaches that are known enhance student learning but don’t exert a heavy demand on instructor time. This isn’t about finding a shortcut, but instead, finding what works both students and instructors in the long haul.

So, then, what are the efficient ways to do frequent assessments that still have a positive impact on learning? Here are some ideas, and feel free to provide your own as well.

Ungraded quizzes. I’ve done this with some larger intro classes using a 100% low-tech approach. I’ll ask students to pull out a piece of paper and ask them to take a quiz that I’ve just written on the board (or displayed with a slide show), just about 5 questions. Then I encourage them to swap papers with a neighbor to for grading, and I go over the answers. Then I tell them the one of the questions will be on the next exam. Then we’re done. No entering grades, no muss, no fuss, but the students will have a chance to figure out if they are on track. Is this less effective than having it be part of the grade? Maybe, I don’t know. It might even be better than graded quizzes. But it’s a practice that as an instructor I’m more likely to sustain. I think in very large classes, if it’s not counting for points, this might not engage some students, especially those not big pragmatic about the next test. Maybe timing this for the middle of a lesson could address that to some extent.

A huge test bank. I’ve asked a number of people who run massive-scale intro courses how they manage to do frequent assessment. Some folks have invested heavily up front into building a bank of questions for the learning management system.  Each week, students are randomly assigned questions through the LMS, and of course there are lots of ways this can be varied.

Publisher-provided online assessments. One of the reasons that faculty go with particular textbooks is that they can facilitate quality frequent assessment with little muss or fuss on instructor side. I recently had the chance to preview some of this software for our non-majors course, and was really impressed how effective it was — better than anything I’d have the time and tools to develop on my own. I can totally understand why some instructors go this route, even though it means charging the students money for these resources.

Dropping exams. If you use more frequent low-stakes assessments, then these could take the place of exams. Imagine running a 20-minute quiz every 2 weeks, instead of a 90-minute exam every five weeks? Research shows this is better pedagogy, and also makes it easier for you to drop scores, which will make life easier for everybody. I’ve always been tempted to drop midterms in place of more frequent short assessments, but haven’t pulled the trigger.

What are some other ways that you can do frequent assessments but without creating a massive faculty workload?

6 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: frequent assessments

  1. Hi!

    I used frequent, low-stakes quizzes in my capstone evolution class and I received a lot of positive feedback from students who found it engaging without adding undue stress. Other students found the quizzes tedious, especially if I focused on a singular topic over a few weeks. But, let’s be honest, most students don’t get HWE on their first try.

    Thank you for this post!

  2. I use iClickers in every class, it works to get attendance and it works to find out whether students can answer certain questions.

  3. Typically, I assign 4 midterms. Instead of dropping a midterm, I enable them to replace their lowest midterm score with their score on the final. That encourages them to keep working hard if they stumbled on the one of the midterms because they can improve that grade later on. But it doesn’t give them a complete freebie necessarily.

  4. This year I gave a quiz to my second year zoology class each week, replacing the midterm. The quiz was online and marking is automated. Students could do it as many times as they wanted over a 5 day period, with the computer recording their highest score. We also do weekly lab quizzes the same way. We’ll know soon how this worked out. In the long run. Overall, this required two hours per week to set up, but should be less in the future. This is more than the work required for the midterm, though.

  5. I recently tried an iteration of my animal behavior course where I had an assessment every five lectures, and they were all cumulative and built up in points. For example (and I may not be recalling the numbers precisely) we went 30, 30, 40, 40, 50, 50 points. Building in points meant that at the early stage, when they were still getting used to my “style”, the assessments were lower stakes. Later, they had a better idea of what I was after and, since they were cumulative, there was more content…so, it seemed appropriate to raise the stakes a bit. I got very mixed reviews in evaluations though. Some liked it (by the last one, they didn’t need to study much since they’d studied some material five times). Others felt it was just too intense. I hope to split the difference somehow the next time around.

  6. I have been giving ungraded (or student-graded) quizzes about once a week– I call them “exam question practice”– this semester in a 200-level Bio class. I think it has been effective. But I like your idea of telling the students that one of the quiz questions will be on an upcoming exam (or graded quiz). That would probably get the students even more engaged. Thanks for the idea.

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