To Quiz or Not to Quiz, Part 2

As promised in my last post, here are the results of the survey of students’ study habits in my course on economic development. Sixteen of seventeen students in the class completed the survey (after repeated reminders); a good response rate although not statistically-significant sample.

When in class, I . . .

  • write notes on a laptop: 25%.
  • write notes on paper by hand: 75%.
  • do not write notes: 0%.

For quizzes, I usually prepare by (choose all that apply):

  • re-reading assigned articles and book chapters: 18.8%.
  • reviewing notes taken during class: 100%.
  • reviewing notes taken when I read assigned texts the first time: 12.5%.
  • doing nothing: 0%.

While I was pleasantly surprised at the number of students who said they take notes — especially handwritten ones — in class, I told the class that highlighting or underlining is an unproductive study technique. It doesn’t engage the motor and language areas of the brain like writing does. Also, when reviewing prior to a quiz or exam, often one has no memory of why one marked a sentence in a text as important. Whether students will heed my advice, I don’t know.

I also don’t know what students write as notes. While they probably jot down any important-sounding phrases that I write on the board, they might not be thinking about what those phrases actually mean, even though I like to think that I go to great lengths to adequately explain concepts and provide examples. This is a situation where a mechanism for instant feedback on students’ understanding would be helpful; i.e., clickers or some other polling method.

Another part of the problem could be lack of practice in applying economic concepts to real-world situations. The students in this class range from sophomores to seniors, and their majors require a basic course in economics. Students who have taken that required course before hitting my course on development should already have some familiarity with the concepts that I talk about in my course. 

I actually have a tiny amount of data on this. Earlier in the year I surveyed new and existing students in these majors. The survey’s questions asked some very basic questions about environmental economics, a learning outcome for the department’s programs. Here are the results:

These results suggest that students in the majors that require the economics course gain little environmental economics knowledge from it. But again the small sample sizes preclude testing for statistical significance. I do get the sense, however, that it’s best not to assume that one’s chickens have already hatched. If students have taken a course in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have learned anything from it, or that they can transfer the knowledge they did learn in that course to some other context.