Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Strictly quizzical

Everyone prefers open-book quizzes, right? It's much easier to analyze a work of literature when the text is right in front of your face, so if I want to assess aspects of students' literary analysis skills, I give them a text and a question and let them run with it.

Sometimes, though, I use reading quizzes to motivate students to complete reading assignments before class and to assess their level of comprehension. In that case, they get a question that requires them to call up details of the text from memory.

In the past two weeks I've given both kinds of quizzes in the same class, both focusing on short, easily readable poems, one with the poem printed on the quiz and one without access to the poem, and the results were stark: 90 percent of students earned an A or B when they had the poem in front of them, while 90 percent earned a C- or lower without the poem.
I asked the class why they thought their performance differed so drastically on the two types of quizzes, and of course they said it's easier to write about a poem that's present on the quiz than one that isn't, and then I asked, "What can you do to make the absent poem present even when it isn't?"

Tough question. I had to ask it a few different ways, but eventually we talked about effective note-taking habits and the need to read texts deeply instead of skimming the surface and moving on. It doesn't help that they're afraid of poetry, convinced that the poem hides some secret hidden meaning accessible only to the elect, and it also doesn't help that they don't seem to feel the power of language so that little of their reading sticks with them. (Then again, maybe they're just not doing the reading.)

Maybe someday I'll find a way to convince reluctant students of the living, breathing power of literature, but until then, I assess what I can: reading comprehension; ability to summarize main points; ability to connect those points with larger concepts. I dream of a sort of literary Last Judgment, with students standing before a Great White Throne and trembling before the Final Question: "How has literature changed your life?" 

That quiz definitely won't be open-book.     

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