“’Get Out a Blank Sheet of Paper:  How to Get Students to Read Without Giving Pop Quizzes”

I.        What’s Wrong with Giving Pop Quizzes

A.    Closed-book quizzes test memory, not comprehension.

B.     Trivia-based questions mislead students on what is ”important” in reading (trivial details).

C.     Students can often guess at the answers (“cheat”), so it doesn’t always give an accurate picture of their reading.

D.    Is that trivial detail what we really want them to get out of the course?  Would we rather they be able to apply, synthesize, and evaluate the knowledge (higher order thinking skills, critical thinking) than just regurgitate it?

E.      Perhaps most importantly, pop quizzes are part of a “gotcha” banking pedagogy that devalues students and treats them as inferior persons.  The attitude of a gotcha pedagogy is that we must keep constant vigil or the students will “put one over on us” or “get away with something,” as if they are criminals and we are the prison guards of knowledge.  It’s a way of punishing students for what they didn’t do instead of rewarding them for what they did do and giving them the tools they need to do well.  There are ways to hold students accountable for the work without playing “gotcha.”

F.      So—how many of us think that we teach our students something new in our courses, beyond what they learned in high school or in other courses?  Why is it, then, such a big leap to think that we might have to teach our students to interact with the material we’re asking them to read in new ways, ways they didn’t learn in high school or in other courses?  We want to ask them to construct knowledge even more that memorize it.

II.     II.  Let’s look at ways to better encourage reading, starting simply.

A.    Instead of a “pop quiz,” try free writing (Elbow):

1.      Have students free-write for five minutes, using a prompt such as: Tell me what ideas from the reading you thought were the most interesting and what ideas you thought were confusing.”  Students may return to the reading to quote things.  It becomes obvious who has read and who hasn’t based on the quality of what they write.

2.      In free-writing, ask some kind of opinion question (so they can’t be right or wrong) based on what they read and ask them to write and support their answer with what they read (books out or not). Then, use those to start the discussion.

B.      Studies on reading comprehension have shown that there is a direct correlation between prior interest and prior knowledge of a subject and reading comprehension.  That means that the more we can increase students’ interest levels and knowledge about a particular subject, the better the student will understand the material.  So:

1.      “Preview” the text.  At the end of a class period, spend a few minutes talking about what the students should expect when they read the next assignment.  Think of movie previews, which reveal a little bit of the plot line and make you want to see the movie (knowledge and interest).

2.      Encourage students to preview the text themselves—Survey the reading by counting the number of pages, sections, subsections.  Look at illustrations, charts, graphs, and tables.  Then have them ask themselves questions reflective of the section headings.  Example:  The section heading in a biology text is “The Process of Photosynthesis.”  Students could ask:  “How does the process occur?  What are the elements needed for the process?  What is the outcome of the process?”  Then, their goal for reading is to find the answer to the questions (interest) and to write them down.

3.      Or, YOU could give them a list of questions to answer before coming into class.  Sort of a reverse pop quiz (interest).  Tell them in advance what to look for or what sections are most important (knowledge).

C.     Ticket in the door—There are many things you can ask students to bring in order to be “admitted” to class.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.      Have them bring proof of what we’ve just talked about.  Proof of their surveying the reading, answering their own questions, written in their own handwriting.  Why not let them use this on a “quiz” or test?  That way, you are rewarding their good reading habits instead of punishing them for what they didn’t do.

2.      Have them take notes on the reading themselves, limiting them to a reasonable amount of space—index card, one sheet of paper, etc.  Again, let them use it on a test or even just during class in discussion.

3.      Have them bring in (on a card) what they felt was the most important point in the reading and be prepared to discuss.

4.      Have them bring in some artifact that relates to the reading.  Example, if reading Jane Eyre, they could bring in a crystal ball for the fortune teller’s scene.

5.      Have them practice the art of summarization through a précis.  Some instructors have them write a précis and an “editorial” to show the contrast between summary and opinion.  Make sure they label what is the précis and what is the editorial.

6.      Have them annotate part of the text: 

a.      Annotations can:

(1)   give definitions to difficult and unfamiliar words;

(2)   give background information, especially explaining customs, traditions, and ways of living that may be unfamiliar to us help explain what is going on in the text;

(3)   make connections to other texts;

(4)   point out the use of literary techniques and how they add meaning to the text;

(5)   can use humor;

(6)   and reveal that the writer of these annotations knows his or her reader.

b.      Sample Annotation



D.    Electronic options

1.      Posting on webboard—just asking for free responses to the reading or guided by a question

2.      Write a summary of the reading collaboratively using Google Docs. http://www.google.com/google-d-s/intl/en/tour1.html

3.      If readings are available electronically on Angel, you can tell who has accessed the reading.  It is a telling moment when you show students a correlation between those who did well on the test and those who accessed the reading.

4.      Have student use Animoto to make a 30-second video dealing with some issue covered in the reading and then write a 150-word explanation of the choices they made for that video (images, text, audio).  http://animoto.com/

5.      Use office phone to have students leave a 2-minute message discussing the main points/interesting points of the reading.

6.  Have students post their succinct summaries on Twitter.

7.  Have students use ReadWriteThink's Comic Creator or Toondoo to create a comic dealing with some issue covered in the reading and then write a short explanation of the choices they made for that comic.

E.      Make the reading important to the class period.  Make it absolutely vital that they read and understand in order to participate actively (if you give participation grades).

1.      Start off with an in-class activity that asks students to use the concepts/ideas and terminology that they most likely would not know if they didn’t do the reading assignment

2.      Have students draw/sketch a concept that was important in the text and then be prepared to talk about it (drawing uses different parts of the brain than writing and can often stimulate new ideas on the reading material).

3.      Have students read (in class) a short, related reading (or use an image, music, something…?) and ask them to explain (either in writing or discussion) how the two pieces intersect, choosing quotes from their reading to connect them.

4.      Let students work in groups for 5-10 minutes to write a play, commercial, or skit that incorporates the key concepts of the reading.

Here's my animoto presentation