How to shift point-focused reading assessments to engagement

Utilizing trivia and incentives provides a mix of enjoyment and encouragement for student learning.

To begin, I am firmly against the way in which we frame grading and scoring currently. I think it is entirely unfair and unprofessional to tell students that nearly 60% of all of the potential graded outcome is labeled as “fail.” However, that is another post for another day. In this post, I will focus on a small way we can all begin to shift that narrative and that fear of failure through fun and engaged practice.

Thinking about reading and what we want students to get out of it is important, but how we choose to assess that reading is a different beast altogether. Many of us will go the route of reading quizzes, especially if we are teaching a large course. It seems like the most natural and necessary way to be sure that students are reading the material assigned for a class that day. Yet, what if what’s natural is really just what’s easiest? Creating the quiz isn’t necessarily easy, especially if we as instructors are doing our due diligence to construct questions that reflect learning objectives for the day. However, that isn’t always the case. I know many teachers (me included) who tend to write quizzes in a “gotcha” manner. This means we work to write quizzes for students to prove they put in the time to figure out what we’ve identified are key latent meanings of the assigned reading.

But what if we didn’t have to approach it that way? What if we treated reading as a point of enjoyment and excitement? What if we, dare I say, borrow from a popular social activity: trivia?

That’s what I’ve chosen to do to shift how I frame and assess reading comprehension and preparation in class. I’ve introduced TRIVIA to the beginning of every class session and here’s how you can do it too:

Setting up Trivia

I write the trivia idea into my syllabus and explain what earning points each will get students. This means that I’m also contractually obligated to do this (because a syllabus is a contract between us and them after all). Here is the most recent language I’ve used (feel free to copy):

Part of your participation will be us starting class in teams participating in trivia. The trivia questions will come from current events and readings. Your group will have the ability to earn 5-10 trivia points (TPs) each class session. You accrue TP as a team, but you spend them as an individual.

You may redeem these TPs at any point in the semester for the following rewards:

  • 10 Trivia Points: A sticker or sucker
  • 30 TP: 24-hour assignment extension
  • 60 TP: Extra absence or 48-hour assignment extension
  • 100 TP: 72-hour assignment extension
  • 175 TP: +/- grade bump at the end of the semester

When you redeem TP for a reward, those points will be deducted from your individual TP account. You cannot use your TP on the final assignment.

I offer incentives, which is counter to what students are used to: reading quizzes mean the possibility of loss, not growth. I also set it up from the get go that there aren’t many points someone can earn each class, so to get to that grade bump at the end, the student has to be present and they have to read successfully. If a student isn’t in class, then they don’t get points from the work their team did.

This also means students will be in teams for the semester. I use the first week of get-to-know-you activities to help students find people in class that could possibly be good partners. I also encourage them not to just gravitate toward their friends. My teams are five people and they are named by a color and an animal (with no color or animal repeated). This system also helps me with organization and other group-focused work throughout the semester such as group activities, think-pair-shares, jigsaw activities, and more.

Step 1: Writing the Questions

As I read, I keep note of potential questions based on key ideas and major components to the reading’s argument. You can also think about this as if you are designing a reading quiz. If you already have quizzes written for readings, then don’t throw them away — repurpose them for this activity.

This part is what you are probably most used to doing. This part also requires you to be cognizant of the number of questions you ask. I try and limit myself to five questions. If students earn ten points for the week, then it is because some of the questions have multiple answers. Five questions keeps the time the activity takes down as well.

Step 2: Thinking about Purpose

I like to link the trivia questions to the outcomes of class that day. And when I review the answers after students submit them, then it gives us an opportunity to engage with the big ideas from the reading that I want us to focus the remainder of class on. The use of trivia becomes a team-building exercise that guides students toward class discussion.

I also call PHONE STACK at the beginning of trivia. My students know this means that their phones must be face down at the front of the desk and out of their reach. They buy into this because from the beginning of the semester I focus on the idea of culture and connection. They also realize that, like normal trivia, if I catch them on their phones or a laptop during trivia that they will be disqualified for the day and receive no points.

Step 3: Assessing Outcomes

This is an important, behind-the-scenes piece. I keep track of how many teams get certain questions correct, and I use that to help me write questions for future sessions. I also quickly use that as an opportunity to focus on a certain piece of the text more in our discussion.

How do I do that so quickly? Well, after trivia I quickly score in the front of the room as students are participating in a free-write activity to help them begin to transition from questions about the reading to questions that require critical thinking. As I’m scoring, I’m learning what were struggles and what students also hit out of the park. Since my lesson plan is built on the same objectives that these questions were written, I can easily shift my timing to address lower-performing answers.

By keeping track of the scores, I am also able to think about who I may need to pay more attention to, especially if a team is consistently performing below average compared to peers. This could signal a lack of reading, but it may also reveal other concerns. Take this as a really great social-emotional check as well.

Step 4: Planning for Future Trivia Sessions

Think about what worked and what didn’t work each time you host trivia at the beginning of class. Here are some reflection questions to help with that process.

  • What did students struggle with?
  • What types of questions led to the greatest success?
  • How did I use my time for trivia?
  • How are students interacting with one another?
  • Are certain groups struggling more than others?

I’ve learned that I need to set timers on my phone to hold students accountable for the time. I’ve also forgone using music as a timer because it becomes more of a distraction than a timekeeper. Another thing I’ve learned is to get students to think about lists and how multiple ideas contribute to an argument. Therefore, I’ve begun to ask more questions like: “The author believes in four different ways to do X. Name one. If your group can identify more than one, then you will receive extra points.”

Also, word of advice: have the teams use one sheet of paper for all the answers and have them turn that in at the end of asking all the questions. I’ve tried them turning in a slip of paper after each question to avoid them finding the answer, but that ended up being much more work on my end.

Can I do this in a large lecture?

Having trivia in your class doesn’t necessarily have to mean the class needs to be small. Trivia is something that large groups of people gather to do on a weekly basis, so why can’t you do that as well? So, the answer to the heading is YES, and it doesn’t require changing anything from the steps above. It just means there are more teams/people to keep track of in the long run.

What is the best way to keep track of this information?

I use an Excel spreadsheet, but I’m also known for my excessive organization and love of spreadsheets. However, it works. I keep the trivia points as a worksheet in the same workbook as I keep track of student attendance and grades (yes, I double-log this information because I don’t trust an LMS system won’t crash).

Are students actually reading?

The eternal optimist in me says yes.

But I recognize that because you aren’t holding a grade over their heads that there is a natural fear that they won’t read or that they will be reliant on their teammates. To start, that’s life. Beyond that, by giving students a carrot rather than a stick, you create a culture that focuses on growth and positivity. When we grade, we tend to think about the outcomes as detrimental or negative to success. For every point we miss, we lose something. You start at 100 and go down from there.

Shifting the mentality here provides a chance for students to think about how they can improve, how they can capitalize on doing the reading, and how they can grow within the class and with their classmates.

So are they reading? In my experience, yes, they sure are.

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