Throughout the course of the semester, we’ll start a class session with a pop quiz: 5 quick multiple choice, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions that test your basic comprehension of assigned readings.

What does “basic comprehension” mean? The pop quizzes generally ask you to identify especially important or especially memorable elements of a text’s characters, plots, themes, and settings – the kinds of things captured by four of journalism’s five touchstone touchstones: who, what, when, and where? (We’ll save the why for class discussions and writing assignments.) It’s important that as you read, you keep track of the basic facts of a given text: names of characters, specific character qualities and histories, things that happen, places where they happen, etc. This is a pretty basic thing to get right in literary studies (a field where a lot of other things are up for grabs).

In my experience, students who complete the assigned readings and take basic notes on names, characteristics, plot developments, and settings ace these pop quizzes, no sweat (usually getting at least 4/5 answers right). And also, in my experience, students who do not complete much or even any of the assigned reading tend to tank these quizzes (usually getting no more than 2/5 answers correct). Students who do most of it, but not all or students who don’t use note taking to enhance their memories: they fall somewhere in the middle.

By simply completing the assigned readings, therefore, you can expect that 15% of your final grade in the course will be an easy A. The quizzes are designed to reward you rather than hurt you, in other words, just for doing the basic work required in the course.

F.A.Q. about pop quizzes:

1. I was absent or late on a day when we had a pop quiz. Can I make it up?

No. There are no circumstances in which a pop quiz can be made up. I base final quiz grades on a fixed number of quizzes (for example: 5, 10, or 15 quizzes, depending on the course), but I always give at least three more quizzes than the fixed number, or I include a bonus question on a set number of quizzes that adds up to three additional quizzes. So, for example, if the final quiz grade is based on 10 quizzes, I will have given 13 quizzes during the semester, or I will have included two bonus questions on every quiz. Therefore, you can miss three class periods – the number of absences allowed in the syllabus – and still guarantee that you’ll have had enough opportunities to earn the full number of points allotted for the quiz portion of your final grade.

2. What if I never miss a quiz? Or I get all the bonus questions right?

That’s great! I’m proud of your for prioritizing your attendance and the reading assignments. You can have all of the points you earn; they will all count toward your final grade. For example, let’s say the course is one where the quiz grade is worth 15% of your final grade, and I will base the final or total quiz grade on 10 quizzes – but I have given 13 quizzes during the semester. A student who earned a perfect score on every quiz will have earned 19.5 points out of a possible 15 total points, in this scenario. Those extra points will stay with them and carry over into their final average, making it possible for their final grade to be elevated by 4.5 additional percentage points. This applies to bonus points on the quizzes, too. You get to keep them, shoring up any other quizzes that may have stumped you.

3. I did not do the reading; can I just not take the quiz at all? Or can I write a note on the quiz explaining what happened and just not answer any of the questions?

No. Just take the quiz. You can’t get any points if you don’t answer any questions; play the odds.

4. I took all of the first ten quizzes, and I did well on them. Can I just skip the last three?

No. This is not cool.

5. I swear I’m doing the reading, but I never know the answers to your quiz questions?

First of all: are you sure you’re doing the reading? Like really trying to understand what the words on the page are saying and meaning? Or are you sometimes running over the sentences without really reading them?

Second of all: Have you tried turning your devices off and going someplace private and quiet to complete the reading?

Thirdly: Are you taking notes when – or even better, right after – you read?

If you’re having trouble with the quizzes and really truly trying to do the reading, here are some strategies you can use to beef up on your reading comprehension skills:

Experts recommend that you preview what you’re reading, focus on what you’re reading, develop a note-taking strategy, and reread. This means one thing for textbooks, but it means another thing for literary works.

Preview: Google the text or author we’re reading online. Find the Wikipedia pages, if they exist. Read whatever online summaries you can find (even those Sparknotes!). You should know that I also, of course, scour the internet for information about what we’re reading and so you’re unlikely to be able to pass the quizzes by looking online in the hopes of skimping on the actual reading. But it’s incredibly useful to know who is who, what is going to happen, and what the major themes are in a given text, especially when it comes to eighteenth-century texts. Don’t worry about spoiler alerts; we’re not just reading for entertainment in this class.

Focus: Reading takes time and attention. Break your reading assignments into 30 minute/15-20 page chunks, and just read. Turn off your phone, your music, your feed. Go someplace quiet where you won’t be interrupted.

Develop a Note-Taking Strategy: There are lots of good suggestions online for how to take notes. Here’s what I’ve found: students who use highlighters or sticky notes or whatever to mark passages as they read actually tend to remember less, not more, of what they read. That’s because there’s this part of your brain that sort of turns off when you highlight – a part of you that says, “This is important, and therefore I will come back and really pay attention to it later.” Later rarely comes. Here’s what I’ve found works better: You can highlight or sticky note or underline 3-5 things (but no more) in one 30-minute reading session. 25 minutes into your reading time, put the book down. On paper or on a device, summarize what just happened. Don’t look at the book. If you can’t remember a name or how to spell it, a thing that happened or in what order, a place where it happened, or a detail that you think is important – just do your best or write [can’t remember].

Reread: When you’ve finished creating this summary (you can write it up in full sentences, or just outline it – whatever works for you), then go back and re-read/skim to fill in the places where your memory failed you. And take a couple of seconds to make a note at the end of the summary about those 3-5 passages you marked. Why did you mark them? What’s interesting about them? What themes appear to be important?

This is a pretty fail-proof way, in my experience, for enhancing your reading comprehension skills and sailing through the quizzes. It also ensures that you have a pretty substantial set of notes that you can draw on for both class discussions as well as for writing assignments.