Quizzes in a Writing Class

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​This blog was originally posted on Decemer 2nd, 2014.

One of my college professors started our last day on A Farewell to Arms with a one-question quiz: “What is the last word of the novel?” I had finished the novel a week in advance, but did I remember that the last word of the novel was “rain”? Of course not.

I’m still angry about that failed quiz decades later; so when the idea of reading quizzes comes up, I remember the “rain” and vow to never, ever impose such nonsense on students. Nevertheless, the issue is bothering me again: Should I give reading quizzes? In a writing course? Specifically, a technical writing course? Even more specifically, in an online technical writing course? I am no longer so sure of the answer.

Instead of quizzes, I have been asking students to do short writing activities that apply ideas from the readings, like responding to real-world scenarios or analyzing an existing document. In face-to-face classes, I knew that students were referring to the textbook because I saw them doing so.

In the online classes I teach, I do not know whether students are doing the readings. I point them to specific pages that should help them with their projects, but their writing sometimes suggests that they haven’t looked at the details carefully. I worry, too, that I don’t give students enough feedback on these weekly writing exercises. I know that I’m always behind in tracking who has answered which questions and whether those responses were on time.

Could quizzes be the answer? I know several others in the department use reading quizzes in tech writing classes to ensure that students do the reading. Our CMS can respond immediately to multiple-choice quizzes so they will grade themselves. Students would get immediate feedback.

Bedford/St. Martin’s even has quiz questions I can import directly into our CMS. I do wish that there were fewer True/False and fewer “all of the above” questions, because they make randomizing the answers impossible. I would like more questions overall as well. The first chapter has only eight questions, for instance, and doesn’t seem to cover everything in the chapter. It’s not my ideal, but it could work.

As I compared my options recently, I decided to ask my colleagues on Facebook what they do. In particular, I wondered if avoiding quizzes disadvantaged students who actually do well on that form of assessment. My friends came back quickly with encouragement. They use quizzes at times and offered useful tips to help make them effective. Joanna Howard “call[s] them quick assessments and explain[s] that they help a reader understand what she has just read.” Judi O’Reilly Kirkpatrick confirmed my belief that the CMS would take care of the feedback once it is set up. Dawn Fels urged me to follow my instincts.

Shelley Reid explained that she uses quizzes “not as assessment but to encourage students to try to *recall* key concepts because recent research shows that simply the *effort to recall* even if the answer is wrong helps move knowledge to long-term memory.” She also emphasized the importance of connecting the quizzes to the course goals and using the information in class to help students understand the relationship between the quizzes and the other work we were doing.

Susan Naomi Bernstein suggested that “Quizzes seem to support closer reading” and agreed that reading quizzes might well help some students more than my writing exercises. She reminded me of a recent New York Times article, “Studying for the Test by Taking It,” which discusses the ways that self-testing and quizzes can improve learning. She echoed my concerns about including more differentiation in learning strategies for the course.

I think I’m sold. I am teaching an online technical writing course during the Winter term. In those three overloaded weeks, I would rather have students focus on their projects than on short, informal writing exercises. Quizzes may help all of us: students will read more closely and get immediate feedback, and I can focus more on explicitly tying the readings to the writing they do. I’ll report on how the quizzes worked in late January, once the Winter term is over.

I would love more suggestions as I set things up for the Winter term. What is your advice? Do you use quizzes in writing classes? Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.