When developing a new course there are many different components that we must piece together, from writing lectures and filming videos to conjuring homework assignments and debugging exam questions. Self-check exercises are an important tool for student retention that can be easily overlooked in the tedious process of new course development.

Benefits for Students

The benefits of self-check opportunities for students are numerous. These exercises can be given in small quantities in a low pressure environment. This makes it easier for students to initially engage with new material as opposed to, for example, procrastinating an ominous heavily-weighted homework assignment.

When students check themselves, it tells them immediately what they know and what they don’t know. Whereas a student might dismiss a mistake on an exam with excuses such as “that question phrasing was misleading”, self-check exercises have no repercussions and may inspire a more honest self-reflection. This immediate feedback can help students make better, directed use of their limited time when studying course materials and reviewing for assessments.

When self-check exercises provide immediate feedback with a detailed explanation, students can immediately correct their mental model. The feedback comes at the moment the student cares the most about a topic — when they got the problem wrong. This moment of relevance contrasts with receiving feedback many days after a submitted homework assignment or exam, when the students’ mental investment may have waned.

In addition to reinforcing course concepts, the act of self-check increases student engagement with material. Ideally this leads to higher retention and increases motivation with the course. Self-check exercises can be confidence builders, an affirmation to the student that they do indeed understand the course content. And in other cases, it might inspire an honest self-reflection about the need to put in more time with the course materials.

Strategies for Teachers

When used properly, self-check exercises can be a great source of feedback to teachers as well. These exercises help identify which concepts students find the most difficult and can inform which material we may need to review in future class time.

While attendance is a useful mechanism for instructors to track student participation and identify moments for early intervention, many students dislike the practice as a throwback to high school. Self-check exercises are a great alternate mechanism for attendance that provide the same benefits for the instructor while engaging in a meaningful learning opportunity for students.

For example, I use self-check questions during class time as active learning exercises. Students receive points for participation, even if they get the question wrong. Using the quiz tool Socrative, I map these participation scores as attendance points in my gradebook. I also receive reports that help identify points of mutual confusion across the class. The value of these exercises is most evident in our discussions following the question. These are moments in which I can solicit far more student engagement than I can with other mechanisms in my remote teaching toolkit.

Alternately, consider making a five question “exit quiz” to be taken following each lecture. Questions might reflect the topics discussed during the class time and be designed to be fairly easy for a student who attended the day’s class and more difficult for those that are not following the course closely. To maximize the learning benefit to students, every Canvas quiz question you write should have a detailed explanation that is shown regardless whether the question is answered correctly or incorrectly.

Another strategy is to provide worksheets or similar activities as a self-assessment opportunity. Give the students a series of tasks to complete or questions to answer as a stand-alone worksheet and create a parallel quiz in Canvas. Students complete the worksheet activity on their own and then enter their answers or responses into the self-grading Canvas quiz. The quiz should provide the students with the answers after the attempt and permit a second attempt with the same questions. The diligent students will go back and correct their mistakes in the activity before taking the quiz again, ideally scoring full marks the second time around.

As yet another use case, one might integrate a Google form into Canvas and require students to log “exit reports” from the class meeting. Students might be asked to self-assess their knowledge along a Likert scale about various topics or provide a muddy point or burning question that lingers. Instructors could then post the list of anonymized muddy points in a discussion forum and incentivize students to answer each other’s questions.

For the technically adventuresome, tools like H5P allow embedding of self-check question widgets directly into Canvas pages, permitting the integration of content and self-assessment.

Refining Existing Courses

Self-check exercises are a relatively easy component to integrate into an existing course and can improve the students’ overall learning experience. Although the benefits of self-check exercises to both teachers and learners may seem obvious, we as course instructor-developers may struggle to find time to prepare new activities. I encourage each of you to review your courses to find opportunities to include self-evaluation within your existing course structure.

Patrick Donnelly

Assistant Professor of Computer Science

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