The Not-So-Pop Quiz and Absent Students

More thoughts on the management of extremely small classes . . . especially those that convene at 8:00 a.m. Mine has only ten students, and recently attendance has sometimes been as low as 40 percent, which empirically demonstrates that a substantial portion of the class thinks regularly attending class is unimportant.

I am not one of those professors who penalizes students’ grades for non-attendance — my students are legal adults with their own lives and get to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I also don’t give many in-class exams. For the subjects that I teach, I believe that writing is a better assessment tool than tests composed of multiple choice questions.

I also believe that reading and writing before class, and discussion during class, are in and of themselves critical for learning. But, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what is to be done?

Last night I remembered the physics exams I had as an undergraduate. Often students were allowed to bring along a single sheet of paper with notes written on it, to reference during the exam. The real purpose of the “crib sheet” was to get students to review their notes and identify for themselves the concepts and processes that were important for an understanding of physics. Also the act of writing and rewriting to make the most critical information fit on a single piece of paper helped strengthen memories of this information.

I decided to employ a similar method. This morning I announced that class on Tuesday of next week would include a quiz. I explained in detail the format of the quiz, its intent, and the fact that it would be an extremely low-stakes event — worth only 10 points out of an available total of 1,200 from all other assignments. I gave each student a blank 3 X 5 note card to write notes on; they can use the card during the quiz.

The downside is that I now have to create and grade a quiz. But even if the entire class decides to show up, I will still have only ten quizzes to grade. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion.

I’ll report on how this goes next week.