Learning Before Class Strategies Part 1: Types of Assignments

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on pre-class learning strategies, which can be used as part of the flipped or inverted class. I have discussed why I implement pre-class learning strategies in the past and want to focus instead more on the how in these posts.

  • Part 1 (this one) focuses on some common types of assignments/assessments that you can use.
  • Part 2 focuses on some different ways that you provide your students with the resources that they will be using to do some learning before coming to class.
  • Part 2.5 is a continuation of part 2 and discusses the types of video lectures in a bit more detail
  • Part 3 (eventually) will discuss some tips and some issues that I have come across trying to implement learning before class strategies.

Common pre-class assignments

These are types of pre-class assignments that I have tried out in my own classes or have heard of being in use out in the wild. Part 2 will go into more detail on the learning resources you can provide to your students, but most of these assignments types will work well with commonly used “flipped class” resources such as textbook readings, pencasts, screencasts and multimedia video.

    1. Reading Quiz – Reading quizzes are usually administered at the beginning of class and marked for correctness. I have used clickers, bubble sheets and index cards to administer them. The problem with reading quizzes is that they have to be reasonably easy  and target recall or very basic understanding so that students that put in an honest effort to do the reading will get most of the questions correct. As a result it is hard to come up with questions that aren’t reasonably easy to guess. The administration through index cards refers to the times that I have asked them to draw or explain something in a way that shows their understanding, but the overall performance of the class on these types of questions has usually ended up being low. I moved on from reading quizzes after just one term of using them.
    2. Guided Reading Quiz – Instead of asking the students to read and try to figure out what are the most important ideas from their pre-class resources, you supply them with a set of questions to guide their initial learning. And then a small handful of those questions are used for the start of class reading quiz. I have not tried this in my own courses, but I came across it in a effectiveness of peer instruction in computing paper by my friend and former CWSEI STLF Beth Simon. If I was teaching a giant section of a course, I think that I might use this method. If the students try to take a shortcut and just learn the answers to the questions, they still end up touching base with the most important points from the pre-class resources (assuming well-constructed questions) which means the assignment will still have accomplished its purpose. Haha, gotcha shortcut-takers.
    3. Pre-Class Online Participation Questions – This is my generic name for the type of pre-class assignments used in Just-in-Time-Teaching . Students are asked to answer questions online (through your CMS, online homework system or plain old email) at least a couple of hours before class, giving you time to review their answers and modify your lesson plan or seed your class notes with their words and questions. These questions are not marked for correctness, but are instead marked for completion, usually based on answers that show that the student put in some reasonable level of effort to learn the material. I get the most mileage out of asking them to answer relatively easy conceptual multiple-choice questions and asking them to explain their answer. Easy is a very relative term and I am usually happy if anywhere from 50-100% of the students are able to get the question correct after consuming the pre-class resources, but it is most important to me that I can see from their explanations that they had to mash the ideas around in their head a bit before being able to answer the question. For these questions I usually just pull a clicker question straight out of my notes. Other types of questions that work well for this type of assignment are estimation questions and short calculations (I will be discussing when these go poorly in Part 3). As I have discussed in a previous post, this is the style of pre-class assignment I currently use for all my courses (intro, upper-year and labs) other than my project-based upper-year lab course. One of my main open questions with this type of assignment (to be discussed more in Part 3) is how best to provide feedback to the students.
    4. Student-Generated Questions – (added an hour after the orginal post went live) I can’t believe I forgot to include this. As part of the pre-class online participation question assignments I usually provide an extra box on the web-form where they are encouraged to ask any questions that they have regarding the content in question. If there are some common themes to these questions I bring them up in class. For more isolated questions that won’t be addressed in class, I usually respond to that student’s question via email. This year in my 3rd-year quantum class I had the students generate some questions after reading an 8-page excerpt on the postulates of quantum mechanics and some compare/contrast points between classical and quantum mechanics. They generated fantastic questions and we spent a whole period going through these questions and tying the ideas from these questions to each other and to their previous courses. The best part was that if I had prepared a lecture to discuss those exact same ideas from their questions without having had them first generate the questions, they would have been nowhere near as invested in what I had to say. It really personalized the whole thing. I want to try this type of thing again in the future.
    5. Summaries – Get them to write a paragraph or three summarizing the main ideas or their understanding of the pre-class resources.
    6. Reflective Writing – The purpose of the student writing in this type of assignment is for them to focus on the ideas that they are having trouble understanding and to highlight or summarize those ideas through their writing. This type of assignment is marked for completion and evidence that they were writing for their own understanding, but is not marked for correctness. Calvin Kalman is a proponent of this type of writing to learn strategy.
If you have tried other types of assignments for learning before class, let me know about them. Part 2 coming soon.

20 Comments on “Learning Before Class Strategies Part 1: Types of Assignments”

  1. bwfrank says:

    Hey Joss,

    We use reading quizzes now, and I hate them.

    I think a big one for me is getting students to interact with something like a sim before lecture or reading. This could be guided, where you want to make sure students do and see particular things, or more exploratory. You an then either get students to answer questions, to generate questions, or to jot down things/patterns they noticed. A good one I like is the photoelectric effect Phet sim.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Yeah, I was surprised at how poorly they worked when I tried them out. I do think the guided reading quiz has merits though.

      As for using sims as one of the resources you provide them, I’m planning on discussing that in part 2. But you have reminded me about the “they generate questions” type of assignment, which I used to great success in quantum this year. I’m going to quickly update this post. Thanks Brian!

  2. Chris Goedde says:

    I’ve been doing the JITT thing for a couple years now. Before that I taught a seminar class for non-scientists (on the Manhattan Project) for several years; that experience really shaped my approach to the warm-up exercises. In the seminar, students read before class every day and bring a written reading response with them to class where they are supposed to write about the important ideas (and the evidence for them) in the reading. I found that worked pretty well.

    For my JITT physics classes, my current warm-ups all have four questions: (1) Write a short summary of the reading. (2) What questions do you have about the reading (no questions not allowed). (3) Conceptual question, might be multiple choice, might not be, with explanation. (4) Calculation question. Might be “easy”, might not be. I’m pretty happy with this set up. Like you, I grade solely on effort.

    When I started I had an estimation question instead of the straight calculation. Didn’t like that as much.

    You’re right that giving feedback is an open question. Most CMS and online homework systems are very, very, very bad about providing avenues for feedback. Also my class size in intro physics had grown from 30 to 40, so that’s an issue for feedback as well. I’ll be interested to read the next parts.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Chris,

      I have found that it is really hard to get them to do a good job of estimation questions without having a reasonable amount of practice first. And I don’t think I usually have given them enough practice by the time this type of question shows up on the pre-class assignments.

      How frequently do you do your JiTT assignments? Once a week? I have not every asked students to write summaries. What kind of quality do you get? Do they tend to touch on all the important points?

      • Chris Goedde says:

        Part of the reason I quit on estimation questions (even though I think they are important) is just what you said—it’s one more skill to try to teach in an already over-loaded class.

        We meet four days a week (M-Th) and the readings are due twice a week (M, W), so they do two warm-ups every week. Our class meets at 11:20 and the warm-ups are due at 8 am. We’re on ten-week quarters and there’s no reading for the first day so they do 19 warm-up exercises altogether. I read them, write comments, and prepare for class from 8 – 11:20 M & W, which is pretty hectic with 40 students, but it seems to work. Almost all my comments this year are answers to their questions rather than comments on their summaries or the other questions.

        I switched to summaries this year; the last two years I had them pick out the two most important points or concepts and write about those. The quality varies widely, both from student-to-student and from assignment-to-assignment for any given student, as you might expect. Some students do a *great* job, some are very cursory (I mark these down at the start of the quarter to encourage them to put forth more effort.) Part of the reason I do it is to get a sense of what they think are the most important points, and it can be interesting to see what they pick out and what they don’t. (This is something I picked up from my Manhattan Project seminar, which of course has a much much wider array of reading.) I think the summaries (or similar) are important as a reflective piece of writing on the students’ part, which is also part of the reason I do it. Every quarter, I get one comment on evals saying they are a waste and one or more others saying what a great exercise it is. (Actual comment: “The most useful thing was writing down and condensing what we had read. … By having to reduce the sections to two general themes I was able to organize the material in my own mind.”)

      • Joss Ives says:

        Chris, I imagine it is extremely interesting to see what are points that they pick out as most important.

        My courses are 36 students, and keeping up with the pre-class assignments is pretty hectic. I do one a week and can’t imagine the twice a week schedule.

        I also love getting those conflicting comments on my evals. Like you probably also do, I do one or two weekly formative assessment questions, usually related to how some element of the class is working for them. I like to do this as clicker questions and I also hand out index cards and invite them to add additional comments if they would like. The really nice thing about doing these as clicker questions is that the people that are really frustrated with some element of the course usually get to see that they are in the minority and if they aren’t in the minority then I get to spring into action to try to fix the situation. Those same comments will still often show up on the evals, but then I have some actual data from class on the general student sentiment toward that issue (not just the squeaky wheel comments) that I can have in my back pocket if administration gives me grief.

  3. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    This is a nice list. I had always been down on the Blackboards/Moodles/CMS’s of the world before this semester, but I just started using Moodle for Pre-Class Online Participation Questions. It is really working well, and I am pretty impressed at what it can do (even if it does do it a little clunkily).

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret,

      One thing I will be talking about is that, when class sizes permit, I like to respond to each student’s submissions personally. In Blackboard you can do this but there is no clear indication to the student that you have done so and there is no way to set it so that your responses are emailed directly to the student from within Blackboard. I also would like it if there were more straight-forward ways of displaying their written submissions in easy to scan ways (such as all written submissions for one question or for one student). smartPhysics is good for the all submissions for a given question display, but has no automatic way to export those submissions.

      Does Moodle have any of this functionality?

      • bretbenesh says:

        There is a “send message” command that is just a couple of clicks away, but I was not aware of this until three minutes ago (I looked because you asked).

        . I have 25 students (total) in my two classes, so I have also been able to address everyone’s comments individually through screencast or email. But I go to GMail if I need to email them (and I copy their question); it would be nice if I could do it with a click of a single button.

      • Joss Ives says:

        I also do a lot of copy and paste over to email to answer their questions. In the past (on Blackboard) I would use their “marker feedback” boxes for the questions, but the students don’t know that there is any feedback sitting there for them unless they open up that assignment and look at it, which is not ideal.

  4. Ian says:

    Hey, Joss.

    How do you think these kids of pre-class “assignments” would integrate with a standards-based grading approach? In SBG, I can’t just throw points around to compel assignment completion…


    • Joss Ives says:

      Andy uses screencasts for his upper-year SBG implementation. I will page him on twitter to throw his $0.02 into the ring on this one.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Another way to do this just dawned on me, and it also helps set up a fine-grained SBG implementation (if that’s what you want). Mylene uses an SBG system where the standards for a topic are separated into levels, and to be allowed to assess a higher level, you must first have assessed the earlier levels.

        So what you do is assess your level one standards through the pre-class assignments (let’s say using the JiTT style assignments). Since the students are submitting their explanations to the questions, you should get a decent enough picture from just one question to be able to check off a level one standard. And then for re-assessment of these level one standards, you could simply have some additional questions of the same type ready for them to web submit. The rest of your standards (levels 2+) would then be assessed through whatever way you decide to normally assess standards.

    • bretbenesh says:

      Hi Ian,

      I use SBG with pre-class assignments. The disclaimer to what I write below is that I am only teaching juniors and seniors in the major.

      It is working well for me. I just tell them to do, and they mostly do. Each night, 1-4 students miss, though. To deal with this, I simply send each of the 1-4 an email saying: “I see you did not complete the reading question last night. Is anything wrong?” I almost always get a reply email with an apology and an excuse (sometimes good, sometimes not). But no one has consistently been missing.

  5. […] in the sciences with a focus on physics education research (PER) from the trenches Learning Before Class Strategies Part 1: Types of Assignments […]

  6. […] just about finished writing Part 2 of me Learning Before Class Strategies series of posts (Part 1 here), but I thought I would post links to a couple of recent posts on the subject of pre-reading […]

  7. […] Part 1 focused on some common types of assignments/assessments that you can use. […]

  8. […] Part 1 focused on some common types of assignments/assessments that you can use. […]

  9. […] to practice quizzes, the structure of my intro course remains largely the same. I get them to do pre-class assignments, we spend most of our class time doing clicker questions and whiteboard activities, and there is a […]

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