Reading Quizzes for Learning

by Jana Mathews
Associate Professor of English, Rollins College

Reading quizzes are the bane of my professional existence. I feel like a third grade teacher every time I administer the multiple choice and fill-in-the blank variety, yet I have always struggled to imagine into practice any less infantilizing way to assess the depth of my students’ engagement with the day’s assigned reading.

That is, until now.

One of the keynote speakers at last month’s SoTL Commons Conference in Savannah was Jeffrey Karpicke, a cognitive psychologist at Purdue who specializes in retrieval-based learning. The results of Karpicke’s decade-long research into how individuals learn can be distilled into something that goes like this: we remember more and comprehend at deeper levels when we recall and articulate what we’ve recently read, heard, seen, and listened to in repeated intervals. As it turns out, the dreaded reading quiz is one mechanism that prompts information recall. The exciting news for me is that it is not, by a long shot, the most effective.

mats_60 Flickr via Compfight cc

I came back to Rollins feeling like I finally was handed the keys to a real college classroom. In one dramatic swoop, I swapped out all of my traditional reading quizzes for those that, in their most basic sense, invite students to articulate what they remember and learned from the reading. While the prompts I use vary depending on course and level, what they do collectively is guide the student retrieval process toward the identification of big themes, recurring patterns, weird and notable stylistic details, and key concepts and issues.

The results of this assessment model swap were instantaneous. Instead of having a classroom full of students were obsessed with textual minutiae (minor characters’ names; dates; the color of Beowulf’s tunic etc.) and thus, kept missing the forest for the trees, I now have groups of students who know how to read a different kind of carefully. Because they know that they will be asked to perform intellectual labor in the form of identifying patterns and making unexpected connections both on quizzes and in class discussions, they now read with their eyes peeled and minds ready to catalog and process these kinds of embedded contextual clues. Crazy, huh?

If all of this seems super obvious, it is. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve arrived late to the learning practices and assessment alignment party, but for the sake of my students, I’m glad that I made it.

Want to see some VERY easy examples of this kind of learning assessment? Below are 3 quizzes that I administered last week:

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