by Jeffrey Kaplan, Philosophy
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
In my experience, there is one problem that plagues higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It is not a subtle problem. But it prevents progress in virtually every area of the educational and classroom experience. If this one problem can be solved, then everything else — improved student writing, better classroom engagement, etc. — becomes easier. The problem is this: the students don’t do enough of the reading.
There is a classic solution to this problem that harnesses a powerful element of student motivation. The solution is to have some kind of assignment, such as a short essay or reading quiz, that forces students to do the reading. The justification for this assignment is paternalistic, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I think this solution can be modified in such a way as to make even a reading quiz into a formative kind of assessment.
In one of our introductory philosophy courses — Philosophy 2: Individual Morality and Social Justice — I begin every meeting with a reading quiz. Normally, my students are not allowed to use electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, or tablets during class. But for the reading quiz at the beginning of class, such a device is required. Using the electronic classroom polling system, Socrative, I begin every class with a 10-question quiz about the reading. A question is displayed in the front of the room, and the students input their answers on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. As their responses are recorded to the gradebook, anonymized responses are immediately displayed. Everyone can see the results. Then I tell the students the correct answer and we move on the next question.
The central improvement of this method is that it allows me to know — at the beginning of lecture — how well the students understand the reading. Out of the 10 questions on the quiz, half are designed such that they can be correctly answered by anyone who did all of the reading. The second half are more difficult. They are designed to gauge how much the students understand the reading. By watching the results come in at the beginning of class, rather than grading reading quizzes after class, I am able to tailor the lecture and discussion to their level of understanding. When I realize that my students are confused about Thomas Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature, I spend twice as much time explaining and discussing it than I have planned.
In assessing the effectiveness of these electronic quizzes, I was mostly concerned with determining how they affected the students’ reading habits. Luckily, I have given all my students anonymous surveys, starting before I implemented these reading quizzes. Here are the results.
What percentage of the readings did you complete in full?
The sample size is small, but I found the results encouraging.
 For students without access to this device, I offered a loner, but no student took me up on the offer.
 Socrative is a competitor to the popular “i>clicker”, but Socrative is free for the students.
 And, of course, what is directly measured here are self-reports of how much readings the students did. But I did find that by mid-way through the semester almost all of the students were performing well on the quizzes and seemed very much to be doing all of the reading.