Online quizzes for lit classes

A couple of years ago, I began requiring online reading quizzes in my 200-level lit classes (Brit Lit II, plus topics-based courses for nonmajors).  This year, I’ve extended it to any class where there’s assigned reading.  As usual, there are some gains and losses.

Here’s a sample question:

According to Keats, a poet is:

  1. A man speaking to men
  2. A chai-drinking beret-wearer
  3. An unacknowledged legislator of the world
  4. The most unpoetical thing in existence
  5.  An eolian harp

People who’ve read their Keats letters recently will recognize the answer as #4, though 1, 3, and 5 are definitions offered by other romantic poets we’d read earlier in the semester.

15/51 students who took this quiz (out of 59 enrolled), or ~29%, missed it.   Of these, 10 picked Wordsworth’s “a man speaking to men,” and 5 chose “an unacknowledged legislator of the world.”  The rest got it right, which isn’t surprising because the question uses verbatim language from the assigned reading.

Here are the gains:

  • When there’s a quiz, more students do at least some of the reading, or at least it seems that way based on class discussion.
  • The frequency of the quizzes reinforces my general shift toward assignments that are more frequent, but with lower stakes.
  • The course management system does the grading automagically, so no grading for me!  (Because, like all sane people, I hate the current version of Blackboard/Vista, I use Moodle to do this.)

Here are the losses:

  • Wow, is writing quiz questions a pain in the ass!
  • Course management systems excel at grading defined-answer questions, such as multiple choice; I would have to review or manually grade any other kind of answer.  So all the questions are multiple-choice.
  • Not that this ever happens, but if I get behind, then I have to figure out a way to account for that in a fair way.  Usually what I do is assume that I gave a quiz, and students all got the questions right.  (Because I don’t like to punish students for my own failings.)
  • The quizzes are supposed to be easy, to compensate for other assignments that are harder.  The idea is to offer a carrot for doing the reading.  Nevertheless, a lot of people will miss any given question.  This is depressing.
  • I tend to ask questions that don’t require much interpretation, because I started this in classes that weren’t necessarily for majors.

Apparently people in other disciplines have quiz questions that they can simply download from the publisher and plug into their course management system.  If a similar solution exists for a literature anthology, I’ve yet to see it.  (I use Broadview, and they offer multiple choice questions for students to review, but they’re in PDF format, and they give the answers.  Similarly, Norton offers a quiz students can actually take, but it’s pegged to a period as a whole, not individual authors.)

And there’s no bank of questions, at least not that I’m aware of, for all the myriad texts one might teach.  (E.g., all of Trollope, or Kathy Acker, or whatever.)

Someone who developed such a bank–or, that is, someone who coordinated such a bank of questions, able to be plugged in to Vista, Moodle, & Sakai–would be a hero.  It could just be a site where people upload questions from their various courses, and other faculty could download them and manipulate them as they see fit.

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8 Responses to Online quizzes for lit classes

  1. You write, “People who’ve read their Keats letters recently will recognize the answer as #3,” but I think you mean, “People who’ve read their Keats letters recently will recognize the answer as #4.” 🙂

    When I was teaching undergrads, I was a fan of reading quizzes, though I did notice how difficult it was to pick a question that everyone could answer even *when* they had done the reading. I never gave online quizzes, though — always just had ’em scribble down the answers to 5 questions at the start of class & pass ’em up. Very easy to grade.

    I’m curious: How you prevent the students from googling the answer to a question like that?

  2. jbj says:

    Thanks, Amanda! D’oh. Fixed now.

    I like online quizzes better than the ones in class because I don’t have to keep up with the paperwork, and the students get feedback instantly. Makes me very happy.

    As far as googling the answer–it turns out that, for this purpose, I don’t care! After all, they’re taking the quizzes at home, so they are presumably taking the quiz with the book open in front of them. Even if they google it, it still means the right answer drifts across their consciousness for a second. The next morning, when the topic comes up in class, people can at least nod knowingly.

  3. jww says:

    When teaching lit, I always give quizzes for the same reasons you mention above. When I have gone without the quizzes there are a lot more long silences where the forty students who skipped the reading hope I don’t call on them, and the five who did the reading are tired of talking. Quizzes increases the number of readers dramatically. Or so it seems.

    But I haven’t done online quizzes mostly because it’s harder to write multiple choice questions. My paper quizzes are (supposed to be) easy to take and they’re a piece o’ cake to grade. In fact, I usually pull out the stack and grade them on the bus; I’m done by the time I get home. If only I had an iPhone, then I could post the grades en route, too. Sigh: someday.

    I even use my quizzes as fodder for my midterm and final exams. The students know that 25% of the final will come from the quizzes and so they keep them and use them as study guides, and my grading for that part of the exam is easy, too. Unfortunately, the remaining parts of my exams are all essays.

  4. That’s an excellent point, that one needn’t care whether they google it or not. I remember an exchange from the excellent film Shirley Valentine: “What was the most important invention in human history?” “It was the wheel, miss!” “Someone must have told you that!!” “Well, how else would I bleedin’ learn it?!”

    I guess in that case, though, I wouldn’t count it toward the final grade, or certainly not much.

  5. jbj says:

    @Amanda Not every quiz question is as google-able as this one, to be sure. And, as a whole, quizzes are only worth 10% of the overall grade, so any individual question is worth a very small amount.

    @jww I sometimes recoup the questions for the final; the students can also review them online at any time, though I’d be surprised if any did. (Having said that, my students write their own exam questions, which they build out of collective notes they keep.)

    On a different note: Your “about” page is one of the greatest I have ever read.

  6. Paul says:

    At a school infatuated with its honor code, I’ve always worried about online quizzes for the variety of cheating scenarios that they, if not enable, cannot prevent. Maybe this is a problem in theory but not in practice, or not really a problem at all. I’m interested that it does count towards students’ grades; most online quiz users here use them as practice tests. Do students for their part ever make noise about the grading, or the opportunities for “cheaters” (deserving of quotes thanks to Shirley Valentine)? If not, what do they say about it, if anything? I’d be interested to hear. Thanks!

    P.S. I completely agree about open-source collaborative quiz banking. I wonder if any textbook company has included a CMS-compatible quiz bank with its books.

  7. jbj says:

    @Paul Thus far, no real complaints. The quizzes are open book, so I don’t think people are too worried about cheating as such.

    Students who do well on the quizzes also do well on the exams and other activities, for whatever that’s worth. (Not doing well on the quizzes doesn’t doom people, though.)

    As far as I can tell, there are no quiz banks for lit books. Some of the composition-orientated books have ’em, though, I think.

  8. I now give “open notes” quizzes in class. I want to encourage students to be mentally engaged enough to be writing things down, and I want them to be checking whether they are doing a good job at this–good enough to study from for the final, which matters to them, and good enough to have a record of what we thought about together, which matters to me. I tell them, too, that though they do not have to agree with the interpretations I offer, they should know what they were, if only to challenge me on them as they read further along, but also because I try hard to model for them the process of literary interpretation. Overall, I think the open-note quizzes have been a good strategy (they are free to use their notes on the readings, too).

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