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Active Processing Using “Quizzes-on-the-Go”

Mick Charney Associate Professor, Architecture - Kansas State University

You may have noticed a growing predilection among young people today to sit back during class and not take any notes. The rationale for this rather quixotic behavior on the part of “digital natives” is that, if classes are nothing more than the dissemination of data, why bother taking notes at all when that same information can be easily retrieved at any time from the Internet. Instructors assume that note-taking, if pursued systematically, helps students wrestle with the course content, organizing and prioritizing it in ways that help them better retain material in anticipation of upcoming exams. Yet, we’ve all observed that, whatever note-taking does take place today, it is generally a mere rote act wherein students numbly copy PowerPoint slides verbatim and then worry about deciphering all that verbiage later outside class.

We want our students to be cognitively engaged with the material during class and, so, active learning strategies came about to help students understand course lessons while the professor-sage-guide is still in the room with them. Interpreted too frequently only as “activities,” active learning has been dismissed by some academics as too cumbersome and unworkable except within small classroom settings. However, were we to interpret active learning as an active mental processing system instead of simply “activities,” how might classroom learning dynamics change? Can strategies be evolved that dispense with physical activity while still genuinely engaging students in a deeper, synchronous mastery of delivered class content?

“Quizzes-on-the-go” test students’ comprehension while class discussions are ongoing, not after the fact. In their simplest form, they consist of nothing more than a short (ten-question) multiple-choice quiz that students take throughout the course of one full class session. As discussion proceeds, students perk their ears to catch the correct response for each question, essentially forcing them to pay attention and engage the material for the entire class period. No dozing off here!

It takes some practice to pace class discussions so that all questions are covered before allotted class time runs out. And, it is prudent to stop occasionally and ask, “Okay, you should have answers now to all questions up through number ____. Everybody with me?” This practice lets students know that you care about their academic performance while it allows them to correct course should their usual listening habits need tweaking. Questions should not be overly verbose or convoluted, and possible answer choices should be clear, succinct, and written with a sense of parallelism.

Later, once graded and returned, these quizzes serve as eminently useful, readymade exam study guides that, in many cases, have also been embellished a bit with the students’ own marginal annotations. All together then, these tailored notes help students conjure up the original process by which they analyzed and differentiated course content to arrive at correct responses.

Such quizzes carry benefits for the teacher as well. Naturally, most students will answer most questions correctly (after all, they’ve essentially been given the answers). Therefore, even a thick stack of papers can be corrected – because little correction is needed – in extremely short order. Simultaneously, the instructor can discern patterns among the most common wrong answers and then address those misperceptions and clarify muddy concepts the very next class period. High scores serve to boost morale and engagement, students get immediate feedback, and they generally appreciate the tempering effects such scores have when merged with scores on major exams that are necessarily more challenging. All in all, it’s a win-win.

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