You can sometimes teach an old dog new tricks. Last semester, I made a significant change in my teaching, in one of my courses*: I dumped the traditional high-stakes midterm exam in favour of small weekly quizzes. I know, it’s not a breathtakingly original idea. I was persuaded to try it not because I’m a brilliant pedagogical experimentalist (I’m not), but because I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Terry McGlynn’s new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching. You can read Terry’s book too, as soon as it’s released this summer; in the meanwhile, you can read a little bit about it here.
If The Chicago Guide has one theme, I’d say it’s using respect for your students to make navigating your courses easier them and also for you. Who wouldn’t want to do that? The book makes lots of suggestions I’m likely to adopt; but one I jumped on right away was that move from a big high-stakes midterm to small weekly quizzes. It’s not that I’d never thought of that, or seen it done – it’s that Terry does a wonderful job of selling the idea. The Chicago Guide convinced me that the weekly quiz could have lots of advantages, both for my students and for me. (It slices! It dices!).
It didn’t quite work out the way I expected.
- What I expected: Students would be less stressed and anxious, without the worry that one bad day’s performance could ruin their grade What happened: They were less stressed, all right – but that wasn’t entirely a good thing. Very quickly they did the basic arithmetic: if there are 10 quizzes, and together they’re worth 20% of the grade, then each one is worth 2%. So they focused on the 2% number, not the 20%, and for each individual quiz they were so much not worried that they chose not to spend much time preparing. The result, of course? Underperformance on the quizzes – iterated, and hence cumulated, through the semester.
This, by the way, brings up an important point. If students were studying the material only because of the big scary exam, well, that suggests my course wasn’t very well designed: all the motivation was extrinsic to the material, not intrinsic. So: can I teach in such a way that the students study simply because the material is fascinating, or obviously important? I’d like to think so, but I’m not optimistic, partly because I’d be competing with all their other courses that feature heavy extrinsic motivation. Plus, I know how my own brain works with respect to motivation, and I’m not sure why I should expect my students to be any more enlightened than I am.
- What I expected: Better learning (educational research suggests that reducing test anxiety leads to better learning outcomes). What happened: As I frequently tell students, I’m a lazy, lazy man; and that means questions from a quiz or a midterm often end up repeated on the final exam. If the move to smaller quizzes led to better learning, then performance on these repeated items should have gone up, compared to past years and compared to new questions on the final. It did not, or at least not obviously – probably as a direct consequence of point (1).
- What I expected: Students reduce reliance on cramming because each week’s studying is more manageable. What happened: Every quiz day, I had a room full of students poring over lecture notes five minutes before the quiz – my students relied more on cramming. I suspect this was partly because point (1) led them to assign low priority to studying until the quiz was imminent, and partly because they (quite reasonably) expected cramming to be a more reasonable strategy when there’s less material to master.
- What I expected: I’d catch student misconceptions earlier. What happened: This worked! It was terrific (although it only requires that one do frequent quizzing, not that those frequent quizzes replace a bigger exam).
- What I expected: Students get grade feedback earlier, so they can know how they’re dealing with the course material. What happened: They got feedback, but because they didn’t study hard (point 1), and they knew that they hadn’t, they (correctly) judged the feedback uninformative. They knew they’d study more and do better on the next quiz… until it actually happened, anyway. On top of that: a high-stakes midterm is a relevant dry run for the even-higher-stakes final exam; a series of weekly quizzes, at least in students’ minds, is not.
- What I expected: With enough graded items (12) that I could drop everyone’s lowest 2 scores, I wouldn’t have to worry about providing deferments, makeup exams, regrades, etc. What happened: I had to provide even more deferments and makeups, because everyone missed a quiz or two. As the students reasoned, quite correctly: not having a makeup would still penalize them for illness (etc.) – a student who was sick and missed a quiz has their grade based on their best 10 of 11 quizzes, while everyone else has their grade based on the best 10 of 12. Sure, it’s a smaller penalty that missing a midterm without makeup; but it’s still a penalty, and that’s not fair. So makeups are still needed.
- What I expected: Short quizzes on a couple of recent lectures would be easier to write and grade than a big midterm. What happened: Indeed they were! Much easier, which was a big win for me. However, it was somewhat harder to be consistent through the course. (Not a bad tradeoff.)
In sum, I think the quizzes improved the course, but not as overwhelmingly as I expected. Quizzes may be much better in theory, but some of that theory is lost when confronted by students showing normal human behaviour and not taking full advantage of the opportunity. It’s definitely my job to provide my students with opportunity. The extent to which it’s my job to force them to take advantage of opportunity is too big a topic for this post.
By the way, you may have noticed that some my students’ responses to being offered weekly quizzes betray mutually contradictory beliefs. For example, they believed that it wasn’t worth studying hard for a quiz because it didn’t count for much, but they also believed that it was super important to make up a quiz that they missed. I can explain this: students are humans, and humans believe sets of contradictory things all the time.****
Now, don’t get the wrong idea here: I’m not complaining because the weekly-quizzes move wasn’t quite the panacea I’d been promised. I didn’t really expect it to be. If there were simple moves that dramatically improved learning while simultaneously making life easier for both students and instructors, I’m pretty sure we’d have adopted them long ago. Instead, students (like all humans) are complex and each one is unique; and teaching well is therefore difficult and complicated. Moving to weekly quizzes was a step forward for me, I think, and it’s one of many such steps forward I expect to take as a result of reading Terry’s excellent book. You can read his book too (well, you can soon), and take steps of your own. Sure, they won’t likely be seven-league-boots steps; but the seven league boots are a fable. And (as I say somewhere in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, small steps advance a journey too.
And now I’d like to hear from you: if you’ve made the move away from midterms and toward weekly quizzes, what was your experience like? Do you have tips for mitigating some of the unintended consequences I experienced?
© Stephen Heard April 21, 2020. Thanks to Terry McGlynn for comments on an early draft of this post – and for writing such a thought-provoking book!
Image: Midterm exam room – stressful much? © Prenn CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.org
*^Which I won’t identify, because I suppose some of what’s to come might sound like criticism of the students. It isn’t meant to be – I had an absolutely terrific group of students and I loved every minute with them. They were, however, human just like me.
**^The expectations I outline here are mostly based on The Chicago Guide, but not entirely. I hope you’ll forgive me for not giving precise page references here – but really, it’s a short book and a good one, and when it comes out you should read the whole thing anyway.
***^Anecdotal. I didn’t keep or analyze precise data, and of course I don’t have knowledge of my students’ motivations, so don’t ascribe too gospel a level of truth to the outcomes I describe.
****^When my son was young and I spent a lot of time preparing him snacks, I was utterly convinced that a jam sandwich was junk food, basically candy, but that toast with jam was a nutritious snack. I should patent that magic toaster that adds nutrients to bread by exposing it to heat. And the funniest thing: I understand completely how foolish this belief was; but unless I stop and think it through deliberately, I still hold it. Humans are like that.