How to motivate students to read prior to class: RATS!

Author: Catherine Corrigan Lecturer School of Nursing and Human Sciences


Getting students to come to class prepared can be a challenge!

One way to encourage engagement with pre-reading activities is the use of Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs). I have been using RATs over the past 6 years and can attest that this method really works, albeit attaching a grade to the activity, which is always a good motivator.

RATs are short (10 question) quizzes that test the students’ knowledge about the assigned readings1. The items can be multiple-choice questions (MCQs), open-ended items, or a combination of the two. The questions are written at the remembering and understanding levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and are taken directly from the assigned pre-readings.


Frequent quizzes increase the likelihood that students will read prior to class1 and RATs are ideal to motivate this activity. A small percentage (2%) of the final grade can be awarded towards each RAT, meaning that a total of 10 – 12% can become part of the final evaluation, although as much as 60% has been awarded for the 10-item quizzes2.

Use RATs in class or online
RATs can be administered face-to-face or online, synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous RAT administration requires that the instructor display each item for an allotted time (typically 1.5 minutes), with the advantage of the computer automatically calculating the score and including it in the grade centre. Asynchronous online RAT items are written at the more difficult application and analyses levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, because the students 1) are allowed to use their resources and 2) are provided more than one attempt to take the RAT. Instructors can allow up to three attempts for an asynchronous online RAT – this process provides students the opportunity to increase their score. Most platforms such as Moodle and Blackboard can be set up to either accept the most recent score or accept the highest score, to facilitate instructor preference. The questions can include short essay questions that ask the student to explain the meaning of a topic in their own words for instance, as well as some MCQs and/or open-ended items. The student can access the assigned reading material up to three times, meaning that reviewing and revision is occurring, facilitating the development of declarative knowledge3.

Individual RATs and group RATs
When the student has completed their individual RAT (iRAT), they join a (pre-assigned) group to complete the same 10 questions in a group RAT (gRAT) in less time (1 minute per item). The gRAT provides the opportunity for students to accrue extra points; if they are successful in their iRAT, they are awarded the average of the two scores (iRAT and gRAT); however they can only get the benefit of the gRAT score if they ‘pass’ their iRAT, meaning that students cannot ‘pass’ an iRAT on the addition of the group score. If the gRAT score is less than the iRAT score, students get to keep their higher score. The objective of the gRAT is to facilitate another exposure to the material within a short space of time, as well as the learning that occurs through students’ discussing the RAT items, such as providing rationale for why they chose one answer over another. Scratch and win multiple choice cards4 (similar to lottery scratch off tickets) can be used for the gRAT, where students can get immediate feedback on which answer was ‘starred’ correct. An alternate method of review is displaying the questions for the class and discussing each question’s answer as a learning opportunity, in particular by discussing the MCQ distractors as well. Frequent assessment and feedback helps students learn1 moreover timely feedback is paramount to the learning process.

The use of resources
It is up to the discretion of the instructor whether to allow the students to use notes for their face-to-face iRAT. The objective of allowing notes during the iRAT is not to make the test easier, rather to encourage students to read and take hand-written notes (not typed) prior to coming to class. Additionally, allowing the use of notes reduces the pressure of test taking. Pre-reading, note taking, iRATs, gRATs and an in-class review follows Marzano’s recommended four exposures to new material3 to facilitate learning.

Try it!
There are lots of advantages besides encouraging pre-reading! Unannounced quizzes motivate students to read prior to all classes because the quiz scores effects their grade5. For instance, RATs can be administered at the start of class sharp (to encourage timely attendance at a face-to-face or synchronous online webinar), anytime during class (to energise a fading group of students), or on any given day of class throughout the module. Avoid letting students know what day and at what time RATs will be administered – this practice encourages students to read prior to every class, attend class and be on time.

Online RATs completed prior to class provide data for the instructor that can be helpful for class preparation with an emphasis on areas that the students are finding challenging6. Face-to-face RATs can also be used as a means of formative assessment and the instructor can use the data on challenging concepts to prepare for future classes.


  1. Weinstein, S. and Wu, S. 2009. Readiness assessment tests verses frequent quizzes: Student performance, International Journal of Teaching and Learning In Higher Education, 21(2), pp. 181-186.
  2. Critz, C. and Knight, D. 2013. Using the flipped classroom in graduate nursing education, Nurse Educator, 38(5), pp. 210-213.
  3. Marzano, R. 2007. Art and Science of Teaching. Virginia: ASCD.
  4. Sibley, J. 2013. Team Cohesion-Readiness Assurance Process. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2016).
  5. Vandsburger, E. and Duncan-Datson, R. 2011. Evaluating the study guide as a tool for increasing students’ accountability for reading the textbook. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 42(1), pp. 6-23.
  6. Heiner, C., Banet, A., and Wieman, C. 2014. Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82(10). pp. 989- 996.

A Devil’s Glossary

Author: Paul van Kampen, CASTeL and School of Physical Sciences


This twenty-first century homage to Ambrose Bierce aims to elucidate terms that often appear in this blog. Only typical examples pertaining to common practices in the teaching and learning of science in Faculty of Science and Health at DCU are shown.

  •  assessment: rigorous method of mapping a student’s cognitive development during 12 weeks in a narrowly delineated area of science onto an integer between 0 and 100; cornerstone of university education that allows a student to showcase the power of their short-term memory and their proficiency at complex routine calculations.
  • continuous assessment: watered-down version of assessment administered in every module in weeks 6 and 12 to engage students (meaning 2) and prepare them for the real thing. Not to be confused with formative assessment, which does not meet the criteria for inclusion in this glossary.
  • circular reasoning: logically flawless argument confirming a premise, e.g. “lectures are good if and only if they transmit information accurately. In their exams these students reproduced the information presented to them in lectures accurately, so their lectures were good”.
  • data: 1. (research) a set of scrutinized observations. Antonym: data (meaning 2). 2. (teaching) See data (meaning 1).
  • direct instruction: the transmission of knowledge; most effective in three-hour blocks containing two 10-minute breaks to groups of 200 to 400 students in a Venutian atmosphere, in which case it also transmits reasoning skills.
  • discovering things for themselves: the only alternative to direct instruction. See also teaching (meaning 2); ignore e.g. Socratic questioning.
  • to dumb down: to engage in teaching pitched at students rather than academics.
  • to dumb up: (rare, may only appear in this blog post) to engage in direct instruction that can only be examined by recall questions. See also assessment.
  • to engage students: 1. to interlace direct instruction with videos and story telling. 2. to attempt to turn all students into good students.
  • good student: 1. student who is assigned a large integer in assessment. 2. a pleasant student who appears likely to experience this.
  • learning: the vestiges of teaching.
  • reasoning skills: collectively they denote the ability to apply concepts and resolve hitherto unseen complex problems; transmitted by direct instruction.
  • science: a body of knowledge determined by scientists to be learnt by good students, and other students too if they behave.
  • Socratic questioning: endlessly asking students what they think to avoid preparing direct instruction; purported to cause learning in victims and hemlock poisoning in perpetrators.
  • teaching: 1. direct instruction. 2. (often within scare quotes) sitting around while students exchange pleasantries.
  • university education: 1. (archaic) the acquisition of advanced knowledge, research skills, professional and ethical values, and the facilitation thereof. 2. an elaborate form of certification that depresses unemployment numbers among the middle classes at roughly the cost of a Jobseeker’s Allowance.
  • unproven methods: any interaction involving students that is not direct instruction. See also circular reasoning.

Enhancing attendance and engagement with non-science students

Author: Linda Hughes Part-time Lecturer School of Biotechnology


As a post-doc for the past 10 years I thought I understood teaching and assessment albeit from a distance. However having taken on the role of teacher and student this semester I’m amazed at what I’ve learned from both experiences. I would like to recommend the module LI502 (Assessment and Feedback in the Online Environment) facilitated by the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit to all teachers as a means of developing your skills in both teaching and assessment, particularly if, like me, you are a novice. I just wish I knew in November what I know now because my foray into teaching would have been far less stressful.

This semester I am teaching a 100% CA module to Marketing, Innovation and Technology students with a minimal background in science. The module is known for having a low lecture attendance rates. To overcome the problem of low attendance rates, an online journal which asks students to reflect on each lecture was added as part of the final assessment. 10% of the module mark is allocated to this journal. The remaining 90% of the module mark is allocated to a group project. To encourage participation in group work, students are asked to submit the minutes of their meetings on Loop. This activity is worth 5% of the final group mark.

Not having any experience with online assessments, I didn’t know what to expect from the journals but I’ve been surprised by the honesty of the students. As a result of their reflections, I’ve begun pitching the topic a little differently (‘dumbing down the science’) and I am including the kind of examples that they’ve indicated they find memorable. I can now see that an online forum would have been a more appropriate assessment for both the students and me. I’m learning from them and if this was a forum rather than individual reflections they could also learn from each other. What I can see and they can’t at the moment is that many of them who have no science background have difficulties with the material whilst others with better background knowledge understand it. If they were working together in a forum I think they could help each other and hopefully be less daunted by the material.

Most of the students had a negative perception of the module before starting as they had a similar module in Semester 1 which they also found very difficult, but those (approx. 1/3 of the class) who are interacting with the journal now (after 3 lectures) are starting to be quite positive. If this was a forum it might attract non-participating students, ‘lurkers’ who are happy to read posts without joining in. From what I’ve read and heard while participating in LI502 it appears that engaging all of the students in any module is difficult but lurkers are unlikely to show up in the classroom so a well-designed forum might encourage reticent students to at least get a sense of what the module is all about. The challenges of such a forum are not small but, as an instructor, if I maintain a presence and if I am careful with the design I might be able to improve on what I’m using now.

One problem I don’t think I can overcome is individualized feedback which is something students value more than I had previously thought. Currently my capacity to give feedback is severely limited so I only manage to give a generalized feedback during class and give individual feedback to the group project postings. Time is my enemy in this so I would need to put a lot of thought into both the assessment and feedback mechanisms I might employ to achieve what seems to be very important in keeping students engaged with these online activities. Despite this I still feel a forum is something I would really like to bring into this module as I can see real learning potential in it as the learning becomes more social and the students can help each other out in understanding the topics.