AMY’S PONDERINGS: Addressing Failure Rates in Introductory Courses

— Written by Amy Skyles —

With the increase in class sizes and workload for faculty, it’s often difficult to gauge student learning from day to day. Designing a course to include several formative assessments can greatly enhance student success. The Faculty Focus article, “An Approach that Decreases Failure Rates in Introductory Courses” provides several strategies for successfully incorporating formative assessment into any course. Strategies provided in the article include:

  • Socratic lecturing – frequent use of questions
  • Ungraded, active learning exercises – case studies, in class demonstrations and others
  • Clicker questions – answered both before and after discussion
  • Practice exams – given weekly and peer graded
  • Class notes summaries – students re-stated concepts taught in lecture and asked questions about uncertainties
  • Reading quizzes – available online after lecture for a brief time
  • In-class group exercises – group discussion focusing on exam-style questions 

Malcolm Hays adds

One thing Amy doesn’t mention above is the actual results described in the article above, which I highly encourage you to read. Essentially, using some or all of the strategies will result in a marked improvement in student performance.

In reviewing the strategies, it occurred to me that reading quizzes might also be beneficial to students before the lecture as well as after the lecture (at the risk of over-quizzing the students). However, when I asked my co-workers (Amy Skyles and Jeff Jennings), they both seemed to initially agree that giving a reading quiz after lecture would make more sense. After some discussion, I think we arrived at a general consensus that reading quizzes could be given before or after a lecture. The deciding factors would be the context and the purposes of the instructor.

For instance, for an introductory course in biology, where students are required to learn a lot of new vocabulary, a simple reading quiz would help students retain this new information, and then in lecture they could learn about how to apply the new vocabulary. Similarly–using the same course as an example–they could read the material, attend lecture, then take a reading quiz to gauge how well they were able to apply the material they read about to the material covered during lecture. One quiz is focusing on retaining the material, while the other is focusing on the application of the materials. Each aspect (retention and application) is essential to the learning process.