Quizzes that lessen math anxiety? Yes, please! Dr. Michel Mallenby shares her research-based formula for administering them every class.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Mathematics,Creighton University, Omaha, NE
PhD in Business; MA in Accounting; MS in Mathematics; BS in English, Math, and Physics; minor in Chemistry
Michel Mallenby, PhD, was introduced to the power of frequent low-stakes quizzes when she was a college student. “I had a professor who used to give little quizzes over that day’s lecture,” she says. “It made us pay close attention in class and ask questions—but it was also a little nerve-wracking.” That’s why she has added a component to reduce anxiety and increase classroom camaraderie.
Mallenby is an adjunct assistant professor of math at Creighton University, where she has introduced the frequent-quiz practice in all of her basic mathematics courses to make sure that students are comfortable with class material before they set out to do their homework. “Math is a subject that builds on itself. If you miss the bottom step, you will really struggle,” Mallenby says. “My course is like building a brick wall, layer by layer. Your wall will fall down if you don’t have each layer firmly in place before you go on to add another layer.”
Mallenby’s Brief Collaborative Quiz, or BCQ, concept is simple: Whenever possible, each class ends with a two- or three-question quiz about the concepts from that day’s lesson. The students first take four or five minutes to answer the questions independently (they can use their notes and the textbook), but Mallenby insists that all students, even those professing to feel comfortable with the material, then check with a peer for additional support. At the very least, this helps them ensure that they have not made a simple mistake.
The BCQs have had an outsized impact on Mallenby’s classes, she says, and have helped to create inviting, collaborative classroom environments where students feel comfortable asking for help. Research backs up her experience: Mallenby cites a University of California, Berkeley, study that found that students who worked alone did much worse in math than those who collaborated in peer groups through informal academic communities and study groups. The students who excelled “routinely critiqued each other’s work, assisted each other with homework problems, and shared all manner of information related to their common interests.”
“Some students like getting to help each other—to be expert. And students who struggle like that they get some degree of confidence that they can do the problems on that night’s homework.”
-Michel Mallenby, PhD
Course: MTH 139 Precalculus
Course description: This course will cover the basic concepts that are required for further study of mathematics including a course in calculus. The course topics include solving linear, quadratic, exponential and logarithmic equations; linear and quadratic inequalities; properties and graphs of polynomial, rational, exponential, logarithmic, trigonometric and inverse trigonometric functions; angles; right triangles; trigonometric identities and equations.
Big benefits of BCQs
The quizzes are meant to be low pressure—she keeps the questions “uncomplicated”—but they do serve a number of important purposes. Two are very straightforward: Students are more engaged during class if they know they will be quizzed on the material at the end of class, and attendance is not-so-subtly encouraged because Mallenby does not allow the quizzes to be made up for any reason. Each quiz makes up a very low percentage of the final grade—all quizzes for the semester make up just 10% to 20% of the total—but it is enough to keep attendance high.
There are bigger benefits, too. Here, Mallenby outlines four of her favorites for instructors thinking of instituting a BCQ practice:
1. BCQs prevent students from getting stuck
Mallenby always selects questions built with elements that past students have struggled with. She does this, she says, to try to remove some of the common snags she has identified over time, so that students can approach their homework with confidence. “I focus the questions on the things I know students struggle with, because I want those things to get cleared up immediately,” Mallenby says. The quiz—and the time spent reviewing results—helps lessen any confusion.
2. BCQs foster the formation of study groups
On the first day of class, Mallenby encourages students to form study groups, and she insists that everyone in the class exchange phone numbers with two peers on the spot. She says the BCQs then continue to foster a collaborative climate that increases her students’ comfort level with contacting peers for help and for actually forming those study groups. One surprising benefit that she has heard from her international students: Other students often ask them for help, so they get to practice their English skills with peers who are willing to listen closely to them—a win-win situation.
3. BCQs allow for immediate feedback
After Mallenby collects the quizzes, she works out the problems on the board, so students know immediately how they did and what approaches they need to take on the homework problems. The post-quiz demo is important, says Mallenby, because students will have to wait to get back their graded quizzes. This is because Mallenby’s courses can be comprised of up to 100 students, making a quicker turnaround tough. Instead, she hands the BCQs off to a grader (a work-study student hired by the Math Department, usually one who has done well in previous courses with Mallenby), who corrects them and returns them for distribution at the very next class period.
4. BCQs create ownership and involvement
Even the delivery of the quiz is designed to be interactive, Mallenby says. “I ask students, ‘Are these enough questions? How much do you think this problem should be worth?’ And we talk back and forth quite a bit [about the creation of the quiz].” This way, students feel they have a stake in their learning and develop a level of comfort with approaching and interacting with their professor.