Beauty in the Beast
by Anne Hadley Behrend
When preparing to teach any course that requires a significant amount of homework reading, one reality stands out from the start: the sheer number of words the students must absorb is daunting. How to make turning the pages of their texts and supplementary readings more alluring? Part of the answer can be an appealing little tool known as the One Question Quiz. Most students believe the unannounced quiz to be a veritable monster lurking in the shadows of their academic careers. The One Question Quiz model of the beast, however, they actually enjoy, and that is just one of the beauties of the strategy.
After choosing a lively text, a book with authority, yes, but also with vitality and even humour, the teacher must be sure her enthusiasm for the volume shines through as she introduces the text to her students. And she must emphasize the importance of keeping up with each day’s reading in order to avoid the pitfalls of procrastination.
But in the real world, these young readers lead busy lives full of academics, sports, family activities, social life, and for many, jobs. It is easy to think that skipping the assignment for one day won’t really hurt until the student finds the work getting out of hand, and is overwhelmed with the feeling of never being able to catch up.
The beauties of the One QQ are several: it teaches as well as it tests, it is quick, and it is popular with the members of the class.
The One QQ is always based on the most recent reading assignment. The quiz consists of one multiple choice question. The item has five possible answers to choose from: A, B, C, D and E. After printing enough copies of the question I have typed on the computer, I cut the pages into strips just large enough for the question stem and five answer choices, plus a small space for the student’s name. I also make a simple PowerPoint slide showing the same question and answer choices. I never announce the dates of the quizzes, but the class knows they can expect them every few days. It’s important to occasionally follow a quiz with another within the next day or two so the class won’t be able to predict their frequency.
As soon as class starts on the day I have a One QQ ready, I hold up the packet of question strips and ask students to clear their desks and have pencil or pen at the ready. Pseudo-groans are heard around the room, but there are grins, too, and sparkling eyes from those who have done the reading. From the one or two who have not read the assignment, the groans are real! I pass out the question strips quickly, asking the students to mark their answers promptly, add their names to the slips, then fold them. I give everyone a minute or so to check their answers, then collect the slips, starting with the students who got them first. The whole process takes no more than two or three minutes.
No one tries to copy his neighbour’s slip. Students are quite careful, in fact, to conceal their choice of answer and get their question strips folded.
Immediately, the whole class discusses which is the correct answer and why. I project the PowerPoint slide onto a screen so that everyone can see the stem and answer choices. We talk about the substance covered by the question and we point out why the other answers are incorrect.
The principle reason that learners like these quizzes is because of the grading system I use. If someone has marked the correct answer, he or she earns an A. However, if the question is marked incorrectly, the student gets nothing—no grade at all. Therefore, if students do the reading they can accumulate a string of As which are averaged with other grades at the end of the marking period. That average becomes a major grade. Students are not penalized if they miss the question: it doesn’t help them, but it doesn’t hurt them either.
Most students choose the correct answer on the majority of One QQs. They increase their overall grade, they learn the facts and concepts of the subject more thoroughly, and they become comfortable with the format of multiple choice questions. Also, it adds a spark to the class for that day.
At year’s end, when filling out course evaluation sheets, in the space for strengths of the class, almost without exception, students write some version of: “One Question Quizzes—they’re awesome!”