College students are busy, so they practice triage: they decide (a) what must be done now, (b) what can wait until later, and (c) what need not be done at all. If a professor tells students to do something but offers no reward for doing it and no punishment for failing to do it, then it will inevitably go directly into category (c).
This is why I give reading quizzes — a common enough practice. But over the years I have come to build my entire classroom practice around those reading quizzes. My method looks like this:
- We begin class with a quiz; I allow roughly one minute per question.
- Then we go over the quiz question by question — and everything else stems from this. Students volunteer answers, which is helpful to me not least because sometimes they have given an accurate answer that I did not anticipate. I also discover which questions they found easy and which they found difficult.
- After the correct answer is noted, I’ll sometimes ask “Why does that matter?” That is: Why is this a sufficiently important detail for me to put it on the quiz? This opens up the conversation, and sometimes we can spend ten or fifteen minutes unpacking the significance of just one question.
- In other cases I will simply unpack the significance myself, asking them to turn in their book to passages that reinforce or expand on the point the question explores.
- When we’re done the students grade their own quizzes, record their grades so they can retrieve them later (and always know how they’re doing), and turn the quizzes in to me.
My notes for the class will typically look like this — from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, which I just finished teaching in one of my classes. (It’s one of my favorite books to teach.) When I make up the quizzes I keep a copy for myself and annotate it, as you can see, so I can not only point to the pages where the answers may be found but also identify other key passages, many of them related, thematically, to the ones I asked the questions about.
Books I teach tend to look like this: