A Quiz That Promotes Discussion and Active Learning in Large Classes

Educational research is full of studies that show today's students learn more in an active-learning environment than in a traditional lecture. And as more teachers move toward introductory classes that feature active-learning environments, test performance is improving, as is interest in these classes. The challenge for teachers is finding and developing those effective active-learning strategies. Here's a take-home quiz activity that I've adapted and am using to get students interested in my course content.

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Educational research is full of studies that show today's students learn more in an active-learning environment than in a traditional lecture. And as more teachers move toward introductory classes that feature active-learning environments, test performance is improving, as is interest in these classes. The challenge for teachers is finding and developing those effective active-learning strategies. Here's a take-home quiz activity that I've adapted and am using to get students interested in my course content.

I teach a large, non-major chemistry course. I try to include topics such as pollution sources, alternative fuels, nutrition videos, and hometown water supplies that are relevant to students in different majors. I give a five-question quiz assignment several days before the topic comes up in class and then use it to facilitate class discussion. I want students thinking and applying course content. The first thing I ask for is a link to a recent article or video of interest to the student within the designated topic area (e.g., Find a recent article that describes an alternative energy source). Question two asks for a general understanding or definition (e.g., Is this energy source renewable or nonrenewable? Explain.). Next are questions that encourage students to interpret what they've read and assess its reliability (e.g., How does this energy source compare to oil and coal? Or how will this energy source help meet our current and future energy needs?). The quiz wraps up with a question that asks for the student's opinion on the topic (e.g., Burning garbage to produce electricity is an alternative fuel—would you be happy to see your town adopt this method? Explain.).

Elements in this assignment connect with the documented learning needs of millennial students. The quiz covers topics that are current and relevant. It asks for a personal application. Students use technology; they insert a link to the article and look it up/turn it in online. I stipulate news sources, no blogs or Web pages, so that they learn to be discerning in their use of the technology. Their opinions matter, and they are asked to express them. Last, they are rewarded for work—as long as they put forth reasonable effort, they get full credit.

The activity also fits with my teaching priorities. It's an assignment that prepares students to actively participate in our discussion of the topic. I can call on anyone without putting him or her on the spot. I scan their answers ahead of time, which allows me to highlight points related to my learning outcomes. The questions push students to engage with the material on a deeper level. They are encouraged to use logic and science to support their opinions. As we discuss, I can share my interpretation and ask for theirs. We deal with topics on which beliefs and opinions differ. During these exchanges students are challenged to be critical of what they read. Their growing knowledge of science helps them better support their beliefs and propose wiser decisions. And I can explain that science is not always right. As scientists learn more, what we believe and the actions we propose change as well.

Being able to pick topics of interest motivates students. Our discussions are informal and lively. I have found this approach reduces the fear of giving a wrong answer in front of the class, so more students participate. These discussions help me understand how those outside chemistry view it. I look forward to these discussions because I get to know students, and they get to see how a scientist thinks. Sometimes they are surprised to learn that we don't have all the answers.

After a take-home quiz discussion, I often get emails from students with more article links related to our discussions. The formula for this activity isn't new—have students look something up, relate it to what is being studied, apply it to their lives, and express their opinions. However, I've discovered that using it as a quiz effectively prepares and motivates students for class discussions of the topic.

Contact Patricia Stan at ptstan@taylor.edu.