Teaching Today's Students, Tips on Teaching

Student Engagement Technique: Liven Up Class Discussions with the IF-AT Form

IF-AT testBy Elizabeth Sweeny Block, Assistant Professor, Department of Theological Studies

Have you ever posed a question to your students only to be met with blank stares and silence?  Have you wondered how you could better facilitate discussion in class?  Have you wished that you could motivate your students to participate in class conversations?  The IF-AT is the answer!

The what!?  What is an “IF-AT?”  IF-AT stands for immediate feedback assessment technique.  Simply put, an IF-AT is a multiple choice quiz.  You create the questions, and your students take the quiz using a pre-made form on which they scratch off their selected answer using a coin or paperclip.  When they have made the right choice, a star appears as they scratch their answer.  If they are wrong, the space is blank, and they keep working to find the correct answer.  Students receive immediate feedback on their quiz this way.

Now you are probably thinking, “How on earth is this going to help my classroom discussions?”  Here’s how!  In my experience, the IF-AT forms are best used in small groups.  At the beginning of the semester, I divide my class into teams that will be in place for the remainder of the term.  In a class I am teaching right now, I have four teams of five students each.  Four to seven students per team works well.  Even if your class is small, one team is all you need!  I create a ten-question multiple choice quiz, which each student completes individually in a matter of minutes.  Then the fun begins!  Each team works together, discussing their answers and deciding which answer is right, with one member in charge of scratching off their answers on the IF-AT form as they go.  If they choose correctly, they see a star on the form.  If they have erred, they keep working together, talking out the answers, until they get it right.  They get partial credit for choosing the correct answer on the second or third try.

The benefits of this technique are numerous.  Students build camaraderie.  They work in the same teams throughout the semester, getting to know each other and learning how to navigate the course material together.  In order to complete the quiz, they must talk together about the reading assignment.  By talking together in a small group first, they are much more likely to participate meaningfully in the large group conversation after the quiz ends.  This small-group setting is a safe place to test out ideas and make mistakes and to admit that some part (or all) of the reading was hard to understand.  Quiet students are often much less reluctant to speak up in this setting, especially when they realize week after week that they do know the right answer.  Vocal students realize that they ought to let others contribute to the dialogue, especially when those others seem to be getting the answers right.  The discussion often begins with more of a vote: “How many of you picked C?”  “Great, let’s go with C.”  As the weeks pass, the discussion deepens, and students give a rationale for why they chose C instead of A, even trying to convince others that this answer, and not that one, is right.  These spontaneous team quizzes, which I give no more than once a week, also hold students accountable for the reading.  No one wants to be the student who didn’t do the reading and therefore cannot help her teammates with the quiz!

From the perspective of the professor, it is a useful way to prepare for class.  As I create these multiple choice quizzes, I am forced to think about the most important points in the reading, the challenging arguments that need explanation, and the passages and quotes that warrant discussion.  I base my questions on these points because I want to ensure that we discuss all of this in class.  Creating the quiz provides a way for me to steer the class conversation.  If you are thinking, “multiple choice quizzes would never work with the material I teach,” fear not!  If I can make this work in theology classes, surely you can make this work for your subject matter!  My questions often look something like this: “Cahill makes all of the following arguments in her essay except…” or I provide a quote and ask, “Which of the following answers best explains the significance of this quote?”  Sometimes I create questions that build bridges between sections of the course: “Smith’s argument is most like which other reading from earlier in the semester?”  There really are ways to make multiple choice quizzes work for a variety of disciplines.  And once you’ve made the quiz, you have it to use again and again in future semesters.

I walk around the room while the teams are working, listening and observing, which prepares me even better for the lecture and discussion to follow.  I get a sense of what was difficult for them, or what they understood with ease, and I can direct the conversation accordingly.  Each team scores their own quiz (no grading for you!), and there is always a little friendly competition among the teams.  Students are excited when they do well.  “Yes, we got them all right!”  We spend time after the quiz reviewing questions that were tricky, and those become jumping off points for the conversation that follows.  If there were questions I just couldn’t ask in multiple choice format, I am able to link those questions to the quiz in order to get students talking.  Students are more relaxed and ready for discussion because the team quiz serves as an ice-breaker.

Team quizzes using the IF-AT work wonders for student engagement and lively class discussion!

Where can you find IF-AT forms and learn more about them, you ask?  Right here: http://www.epsteineducation.com/home/about/

And where can you learn more about team-based learning?  Here: http://www.teambasedlearning.org/


Elizabeth Sweeny Block is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theological Studies.  She holds a Ph.D. from The University of Chicago in Religious Ethics.  Her research focuses on moral anthropology and conscience.



Photo of IF-AT form courtesy of Epstein Educational Enterprises