Thursday, April 22, 2010

Raquel From Roanoke Offers Up a Nuclear Option For Quizzing Your Flakes Into Submission.

I teach a required class for senior, non-major students. In the heady days after Spring Break, when their minds drift (and stay) elsewhere, I employ a strategy of deterrence with the possibility of nuclear annihilation. (They thought, for a while, it was Mutual Assured Destruction, but I assured them that they, in fact, had no nukes.)

Here’s the drill.

On the day before the deterrence plan begins, I send this e-mail:


There are 14 lessons left in this course. They can go one of two ways, and the path is entirely in your hands.

By mutual agreement and requirement of this august institution where we all find ourselves learning and working, we will all come to class. Our classroom interactions are predicated on two assumptions: one, that you will read and prepare for class ahead of time and demonstrate a reasonable level of objective comprehension in order to work on higher-order analysis and thinking during class, and two, that I, as your instructor, will work to craft lesson plans and in-class discussions that are based not on lectures but on interaction and that will require you to demonstrate your factual knowledge and develop your analytical skills.

I pledge to hold up my end of the bargain.

However, as your instructor, I must also be satisfied that you leave this course with a minimum level of proficiency in the subject. This goal is as important as encouraging discussion, analysis, and interest in the subject. For we quickly find that discussion and analysis not based on sound factual understanding are empty and not very rewarding.

So, back to the two paths:

  1. The path of goodness and light: Everyone holds up their end of the bargain. You all continue reading. You all continue to ask intelligent questions. Participation points flow freely. Reading quizzes and daily writing exercises vanish. 1960s rock-and-roll and video clips abound. The classroom atmosphere is reasonably relaxed and we can go where our readings and discussion take us, looking ahead toward the final exam and the future, and thinking back about the course as a whole: what we’ve learned and where we still have to go.
  2. The path of sorrow and pain: You all fall short of the expectations set for you. You read only minimally, or not at all. You are silent in class. Easily-won participation points disappear. Evil, reading-based, writs appear regularly. I make it my job to figure out just how much you don’t know (a remarkably easy task). You may find yourself in a glorified version of study hall, forced to read and take notes, and stay awake. There are no pictures or movies on this path. Daily writing exercises continue and will be graded.

I know which I would prefer, but I am prepared to do either.


Students come in. I ask if they have questions from the reading. (They never do.) I then ask them 2 multiple choice questions of the easiest sort. Things like, “Which one of the following was NOT in your reading?” for which the answers are all made up, except for the one correct answer, which was a chapter subtitle.

I require that half the students in the class get the questions right. If they meet that standard, we proceed with discussion and class as normal . They are graded (easily) on their participation in the discussion.

If they don’t hit the mark, I move to a variety of options, most of which end with a diabolically hard quiz, in which fairness is no longer a concern. If it is in the book, it’s fair game. Sometimes, when only one of them brings the reading, we read the assignment out loud, like first grade. At other times, I put them in study hall, where they must read, take notes, and write an essay on the material.

Thus far, in a total 24 class meetings (4 different sections meeting 6 times each), I’ve resorted to the nuclear option only 6 times, and never more than twice in a single section. It’s transparent, fair, and ENTIRELY on the students. (The only cost to me is that I have to make up something evil for every class, but I do that with pleasure. . .)