Trying Something New

Yesterday was the last day of our winter trimester and we are now on a two week spring break. My students this year have been asking me on a number of occasions about having a group quiz. They know that I have done this in the past, it’s a small school and word spreads, and they wanted a piece of that action. While I emphasize collaboration and I want to let students know that I value what I say I value, I have struggled a bit with group quizzes. Too often, not always of course, I witness one or two students simply sitting back and letting their peers do the heavy lifting in these settings. With the end of the term looming I wanted to try and satisfy this demand from my students while also re-thinking it in some way. I tried something yesterday and I think I am pretty pleased with how it played out.

I wrote five different versions of a quiz for my Calculus Honors class. We are working on the chain rule and there is an ocean of variants for any of these problems where it feels easy to ask for the same skill under a slightly different disguise. So I decided that I would have a group quiz but the members of the group did not have the same quiz. I told them that they should spend the first minute or two looking over the quiz and sizing up what they needed to know and that they should lean on their teammates for insights, hints, or reminders as necessary. So each person had their own four problems to do BUT each of their problems was a direct analogue of the ones their teammates had. I want to report out some of what I saw and heard during these three classes.

The first thing I want to note is that a number of groups, not all of them but enough of them that I noticed it, spent the last five minutes or so swapping their quizzes and checking on each others’ work. I LOVED this. We often talk about students checking their work but it is way too easy to look at a mistake of your own and not notice it at all. If you wrote it in the first place it is because you believe that is what you should do. Seeing a mistake from another person is much easier. The other thing I heard was students reminding each other of problems we had done in class. Thinking out loud, saying something that you remember, is much easier than conducting an internal monologue to try and refresh your memory.

As they were finishing their work and turning in their papers, I asked a number of students whether this felt like a meaningful exercise. They were pretty positive about it and a couple of kids made an almost identical remark that really pleased me. They noted that they felt like they got a lot more practice at the skill of analyzing chain rule derivatives. Someone said it was almost like a 16 question quiz that they had to think about even though their own quiz only had four questions. I think I am pretty pleased with this tweak on the group quiz idea and I will probably pull this idea out again soon.