Monday, May 20, 2024

Ending the semester

I give quizzes in class to make sure my students did some reading before they listened to my lecture. I, and I suppose my students, find this approach good for learning. The concepts of biochemistry and molecular biology, the main subjects I teach, are best learned individually. The student reads the material, processes the concepts in his/her head, takes down notes, memorizes, understands, and applies it. The lecture serves as tool for the student to synthesize the concepts and to ask me questions, mostly for clarification. 

My students welcome my quiz announcements with nervous anticipation. We check the quiz together and discuss the answers. The quiz therefore accomplishes two major things for me: it helps me gauge their grasp of the subject matter and identify their gaps in knowledge. 

In a sense, I treat my students as Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizers, a concept I loosely borrow from Alan Jacobs, who teaches humanities. 
Students have many demands on their time, and they would also like to spend at least some of that time enjoying themselves, so when they look at what they’re supposed to do in any given week, they triage: What has to be done first? That is, what will I pay a price for not doing? Whatever would cost them the most to skip is what they do first, and then they work their way down the line. If you have assigned your students some reading but they pay no price for neglecting that reading, then students will neglect that reading. It’s as simple as that. When I was in college I thought in precisely the same way. I rationally maximized my utility, according to what was utile by my lights.

And this:
This is why I give reading quizzes: to move my assignments up in the queue, to force the practitioner of triage to reckon with me. And there’s another reason: We go over each quiz in class — I make them grade their own quizzes — and in the process I discover what they noticed and what they missed. That’s useful information for me, and not just when I’m making up future quizzes: I’m able in our discussion to zero in on those overlooked passages. “Why did I ask about this? Why is this passage important?” I also encourage them to tell me when they think a question is too picky — sometimes I even agree that it is, though whether I do or not it’s helpful to explain why I asked it.

Let me also just say: it's been a pleasure to co-teach biochemistry with this excellent gang of teachers the semester—Drs. Lyza, Nikki, Kath, and Junjun!



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