Use Monte Carlo Quizzes to promote student engagement

In a 2004 article in College Teaching, Peter Fernald writes of a technique that improves upon the surprise quiz. Fernald was looking for a way to ensure that his students were doing all of the reading, but also hoping to encourage the right kind of reading, reading that actively engages with the material and lays the groundwork for real understanding. He evolved something he calls the Monte Carlo Quiz. 

At a certain point in each class period a student must roll a standard six-sided die. If it lands on an even number, there will be a quiz on that day’s reading. If it lands on an odd number, no quiz is given. If there is to be a quiz, the student rolls the die again, this time to determine which reading, or part of the reading, the quiz will cover (this second roll can be skipped if students only do one reading for each class period). Then the student rolls the die a third time, to find out which of the six pre-assigned questions the students will have to answer. 

Fernald uses the same six questions, derived from Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, throughout the term:

1. Knowledge: Describe the major thesis, the central idea or set of ideas, in the reading. . . .

2. Comparison: Identify two concepts or principles presented in the chapter or article and, when you first mention each, underline and define it. Then, show how the concepts or principles in some way(s) are both similar to and different from one another. . . .

3. Application: Select a concept or principle in the chapter or article, clearly define or describe it, and then indicate how it applies to you or someone you know. Provide sufficient details to justify convincingly that the concept or principle indeed applies as you suggest.

4. Critique: Write a critical perspective on some aspect of the chapter or article, citing evidence that prompts you to agree or disagree with the author’s perspective.

5. Passion: Citing page number(s), quote verbatim a statement or brief passage that elicits in you some type of emotional response . . . Then identify your emotional response, describe the meaning(s) that the statement or passage has for you, and provide actual or possible reasons for your response.

6. Student’s Choice: Answer any of the above five questions. 

The concept could work with other sets of questions as well, including those more specifically tailored to the course.

The real benefit of Monte Carlo Quizzes is that, because students don’t know which question they may have to answer, they must be prepared to answer any of the six questions. If you apply this strategy in every class period, as Fernald does, you ensure that the students always have an incentive to do the reading thoroughly. And yet, you are not forced to give over valuable class time to a quiz in every single class period; the first roll of the die should land on an odd number approximately half of the time.

Source: Peter S. Fernald, The Monte Carlo Quiz: Encouraging Punctual Completion and Deep Processing of Assigned Readings," College Teaching 52. 3 (Summer 2004), 95-99.