Engaging students with tough topics using informal tutorial quizzes

Question Mark Cookies (2012), cc.2.0 https://flic.kr/p/bTQwf4
Felix Marsh-Wakefield

On paper, tutorials are small classes that allow students to apply, discuss, debate or practice the week’s lecture content. Though often imagined as a forum for student activity, the reality is that tutorials can just as often be places for awkward silences, student anxieties about ‘getting it wrong’ and tutors talking to fill in the void. This can be especially true for subjects with a high degree of complexity or counterintuitive concepts. We spoke to Felix Marsh-Wakefield, a tutor of second year Immunology and a PhD student at the Sydney Medical School, about how he uses Socrative quizzes to engage students with the topics they are struggling with.

You’ve been using Socrative in your tutorials. What led you to develop this learning activity?

I had first heard of Socrative through the eLearning subject that was part of my Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. Socrative sounded like an interesting piece of software that I wanted to give a try. As we also had an assignment we had to put together around eLearning, I thought it would be good incentive for me to try and use it during my tutorials.”

One of the hardest things I’ve found whilst tutoring was the lack of questions the students were bringing to the classroom.

The subjects covered in second year immunology are quite complicated, and I know that there is a lot that students don’t understand. I wanted to try and come up with a way to get them more engaged with the topics they were struggling with. So I decided I would try and use Socrative to quiz the students on topics that have been covered in lectures, to promote discussion and give me a sense where I should focus more of my teaching.

How does it all work?

I write a set of questions based off the most recent lectures to test the student’s understanding, so there would be one each week. I asked my students if they would have preferred one large quiz at the end of semester, but they preferred having small regular ones. Tutorials are a pretty informal setting, so it meant my questions did not have to be written in an academic style.

The informal setting also meant that the timing of the quiz didn’t matter. I ended up just playing music in the background, and told the students they had until the end of the song. This helped get the students more used to time, but also a chance to listen to my awesome taste in music.

I would then start the quiz (there’s a handy app that made it even easier), and the students could log on via their phone, tablet, or laptop. I kept it anonymous, to make the students feel less threatened by having their scores known to the rest of the class. Socrative shows you the number of students currently undertaking the quiz, so I could gauge whether anyone was slacking off. But ultimately my students understood that this was for them, so students were always engaged and attempting the quiz.

Immediate feedback from Socrative

After the end, I then went through the quiz to show discuss the answers. Because Socrative would show you how many students answered the question and how many were correct, it gave me a really good idea what topics the students were most struggling with. This promoted discussion in the class, and the students seemed more happy to contribute.

I think they just felt more comfortable knowing they weren’t the only ones having a hard time understanding the content. In contrast, the questions that were answered unanimously correct could then be skipped over, because they all understood the content, allowing more time on the harder topics.

What impact has this made on your students, your class, and yourself?

I like to think it made the students more confident in asking questions and more comfortable in realising it’s not a bad thing being confused over certain topics. I wouldn’t be a very useful teacher if all I’m doing is telling the students stuff they already know, so the quizzes really helped guide my teaching based on what the students want to know.

Socrative also allows you to share the quizzes that you’ve done with other teachers. I found this really useful, because I could share the quizzes I put together with other tutors in the department. They could then edit their copy to make it more personal for their class.

As much as I have enjoyed teaching being a PhD student means that my research has to be a top priority. Time will always be against me. As the semester went on and other deadlines came up it meant that I had less time to put into good questions. For future tutorials, I think it would be best to make use of the ability to share your quizzes so that tutors can share the workload and generate a larger pool of questions that could be used in future classes.

What surprised you most about this approach?

Using the Socrative software was really easy, and it actually worked in getting students more engaged! I found it really easy to write the questions online, and then during tutorials I could start the quiz with my phone. I could then use the computer to show the results of the quiz to the whole class, and it got the students more likely to ask questions.

Any tips for other tutors who might want to try something similar in their classes?

  • Sample light-hearted Socrative question.

    Work with other tutors to write questions, as time is always more precious the later in semester you are.

  • Socrative is FREE for up to fifty students, so is great for small tutorial classes.
  • In tutorials, don’t make quizzes too formal. Write questions in a style that students will engage with, play music, have fun with the activity.
  • Once you have completed a quiz make sure you leave time for students to discuss the answer and the topic. This is especially important on topics that students do not understand.
  • Keeping the quiz anonymous helps students feel less threatened by the prospect of ‘getting it wrong’.

About Felix

Felix Marsh-Wakefield is a PhD student currently writing up within the Byrne laboratory. Felix is part of the Discipline of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, located at the Charles Perkins Centre.

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