By Request: Textbook Trivia

As a history professor, I'm about as un-old school as you can get. For one thing, I am an utter disaster with names and dates and other historical "facts." When my students ask me, "Hey, Professor Stewgad, when did this happen?" I look at them blankly and say, "What do I look like, Google?" Or vaguely reply, "Um, the 19th century?" (Ok, not really, but almost.)

I figure that since I can't remember names and dates, I shouldn't be asking anyone else to do so. Consequently, I don't give exams. I have developed a nice-sounding pedagogical justification to accompany this personal failing. I have come to believe that all exams do is teach people how to take exams. And I wonder, why are my students going to need to know how to do that in 10 years? They won't. But, will they need to know how to write coherently? One can only hope. So instead of taking tests, my students write papers. Lots of them -- of varying lengths. This sucks royally for me because I'm constantly behind in my grading, but I'm pretty passionate about my reasons behind it. (That isn't to say I don't think that other profs shouldn't have exams. They absolutely should. But I'd feel like such a hypocrite.)

One of the consequences of this that I readily accept is that the students don't always read the textbook as carefully as they should because the know they won't be tested on the material contained within. This tends to get pretty ugly around the middle of the semester when the students are bogged down with other stuff and I'm trying to conduct a discussion on material that absolutely no one has ever glanced at. At that point, I pull out Textbook Trivia. It is strategically timed to occur in the week that a paper is due. (for reasons that shall become clear below.)

I tell the students on Monday that "it would be in their best interests if they read the assignment very carefully" for Wednesday. They all gulp and nod, expecting a pop-quiz. When Wednesday rolls around, they all come into class and sit there pouring over the textbook as if there was no tomorrow. They all look terrified. (I must confess that this too is part of the fun for me.)

Then, when class starts I tell them to put everything away except their textbook. They start looking a little confused. I then tell them that there is no quiz. (To oos and ahs and an occasional cheer.) I then tell them, however, that they will be competing in four groups for a 48-hour extension on the next paper assignment. They tend to get very excited at that point.

Then I ask for a volunteer -- someone who may be uncomfortable speaking in public. They usually hesitate at that point, but then someone always volunteers. That student's job is to keep score and to determine which team has their hand up first. Then, I tell that volunteer that congratulations, they get the extension automatically. (This usually elicits groans, and some protests at which point it is good to remind the group that this game is not a democracy, but a dictatorship run by me.)

I then divide the class into groups, and hand out the rules. Here are they are:

4 teams of 6-7 people. Everyone gets 5 minutes to review the chapter.

There are 4 kinds of questions ranging in points from 1-4. 1 & 2 point questions must be answered individually. 3 & 4 point questions can be considered by the whole group, which will have 1 minute to consult. (I hand my trusty battered Timex Ironman to the volunteer student as a timer.)

Each person must answer at least one question for the whole team to get credit.

The whole question must be read before you raise your hand. If you raise your hand before the whole question is read, your team is disqualified from answering.

There are no points deducted for wrong answers, however, any challenges made to the rulings of the volunteer or the game host (me) will result in point deductions. (I implemented this one recently after a 10 minute argument about who had their hand up first threatened to derail the whole project.)

The host reserves the right to award partial points for any incomplete answers.

Ahead of time, I've prepped about 75-ish 4x6 cards with questions and answers on them taken from the chapter (for a 55 minute class). I assign point values based on the difficulty of the question. Harder questions are usually specific details (i.e. "What was Zachary Taylor's nickname? is a 4 pointer. (FYI - Old Rough -and-Ready) "Name 2 Plains Indian Tribes" is a 2 pointer. 3 and 4 point questions are often analytical: "Critique Manifest Destiny.") For 3 and 4 point questions, I give a lot of partial credit and let the other teams answer if/when the first team gets the answer wrong or incomplete.

When there is about 10 minutes left in the game, if the teams are pretty evenly matched in score (which they always have been) I raise the stakes. I tell them that if EVERY team can reach as certain score or gain 20 points in the next 10 minutes, that I'll give the extension to everyone. This tends to eliminate the competitive anger that has usually emerged at this point and shifts the energy to cooperation. They start helping the teams that are behind, and stop trying to kill each other, which is always good.

The game is fun, the students love it, and it is a day when everyone gets really active in their participation. But, the really great thing about this is that it usually elicits a pretty interesting discussion -- as the students talk about the answers, they argue with each other about which details are important, which ideas are correct, and how to understand and interpret the material. It may seem juvenile for 19-22 year olds, but I swear, they love it. They even forget that they're learning. And, I suspect that when they miss an answer, and hear from a competing team that John Tyler's nickname was "his accidency," they don't soon forget it.

Thanks for asking for details, Scriv and Flavia! Let me know how it works if you try it out in your classroom!


At 8:47 AM Scrivener said...

This sounds cool. I might try it myself, maybe next semester. How often do you end up giving them all extensions?

At 4:57 PM LaKisha said...

Thanks! This is great. I am going to try it for sure. I appreciate all the details/rules. I find it hard to try this kind of stuff out because usually I fear anarchy (I admit that I am a control freak). But these rules sound like it will help things go smoothly!

At 6:07 AM Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I am soooo doing this next semester. They'll be playing for more time on their take-home exam.

At 1:04 AM Ms.PhD said...

This is fabulous. And not just because, like you, I can't remember factoids. I'm also really passionate about how useless it is to be able to do well on exams while being incapable of writing. I'm glad to see I have kindred spirits when it comes to education!

I particularly like the way you take the competitive anger out of it and get them to help each other. I personally hate games of any sort, but I like the way you put them on teams since I think that takes a lot of pressure off.


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