Incorporating surprises into college classrooms can significantly enhance students’ learning experiences by capitalizing on the brain's release of dopamine. By employing thought-provoking experiments and demonstrations, unexpected questions and discussion prompts, and guest speakers and field trips, you can harness the power of surprises to cultivate active engagement, critical thinking, deeper understanding, and long-lasting motivation among your students.
Here is an in-class exercise for our post-pandemic world. It illustrates how sociological concepts can increase a student's understanding of the social world and supplement individual explanations.
When I discuss a term paper assignment with my students, I explain that readers need to understand a paper’ s purpose and the logic of its organizational structure. To prepare them for writing a rough draft, I ask them to write a detailed outline, with section headings, introductory paragraphs, and prospective topic sentences. Despite this request, when I read their drafts, I still find that I have a hard time understanding how they got from their opening problem statement, through their
To be clear: the reason for asking instructors to reveal the structural principles of the course is that it explicitly acknowledges the role that students’ comprehension of the design will play in their performance.
First, if you ask students a question, listen to their answers. We all know the research showing that most instructors wait two seconds or less before answering their own questions. Don’t do that! Ask a question, count to 10 silently, and if no one has responded, ask the question again. Still no response? Paraphrase the question and ask it one more time. I find I almost never need even the first 10 seconds, as sooner or later, one of the students “cracks” and volunteers. To do this effectively, however, you’re going to have to learn to appreciate silence. Trust me, it is actually refreshing in the classroom to sit silently and contemplate something, rather than coping with a constant wall of words.
Second, instead of jumping right into asking for responses, give students time to jot down their thoughts. This will probably take no longer than a minute or two, but it does wonders for freeing up the blockage that students often encounter when they are immediately asked for an oral response to a question. I’ve use this technique successfully in many countries, especially in Southeast Asia, where students are often reluctant to speak. The very act of writing down their thoughts seems to show students that they do, in fact, have something to say. You can then ask them “read me what you’ve written on your papers,” if they’re still reluctant to speak off the cuff.
Third, use the board to list the answers that students offer. Writing on the board has a number of benefits. It slows you down, giving you a chance to process what the students had said and come up with follow-up question, if need be. It also gives you a justification for probing a student response, as you can say that “I’m not sure I completely understand what you said – – could you elaborate?” Writing on the board, in the student’s own words, shows the students that you take them seriously. It privileges their voice, especially when you resist the impulse to pre-edit their responses and write down what you were going to say anyway. Seeing their own words on the board seems to embolden the students and encourage them to volunteer to answer the next question. Finally, writing in the board also gives you a written record for later review, either in the class or – – if you photograph the board – – later, when you decide on what should be covered in the next class session.
Fourth, put students in groups to work on your questions or problem sets. Tell the group that you will be calling on a member of the group to give an oral response to your question and then walk around the room, coaching them as needed. When you ask groups to report, you don’t need to run through every single group. After a member of the first group gives an answer to the question, you can ask other groups if they have amendments, revisions, objections, supplements, and so forth. Refrain from commenting yourself until you given the students sufficient time to hash things out among themselves. Often, you will find that everything you would plan to say yourself has now been voiced by the students.
Colleagues sometimes object that using these techniques means you can’t cover as much. My response? First, who cares! Second, and more substantively, if the goal is to teach for understanding, there’s no better way to find out if your students are learning their lessons than to hear it in their own words.
As others have pointed out, there is a potential downside to such questions: they emphasize what has not been learned, rather than what has been learned. Accumulating evidence suggests that when students repeat something, even if it is wrong, it gets reinforced in their thinking. For example, wrong answers on tests can pass into long-term memory as received wisdom. In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull argued that it was futile to bring up and then try to correct misunderstandings and mistaken impressions. He said that such practices only reinforced the very knowledge that an instructor was trying to stamp out. Zull suggested that a better strategy was to focus on the positive and reinforce “correct” answers.
In that spirit, it would seem better practice to end a class by asking students to reflect on “what is the most important thing you learned today?” or “what will you take away from today’s class?” The task can be made slightly more complex by asking students how what they learned in today’s class builds on a previous class or what new ideas they might go online to follow up, given what they learned in today’s class.
An affirmative approach to what’s been discussed in class reinforces a growth mindset by showing students that you are making an assumption not only about that they already know something but also that they are now capable of building on that knowledge and integrating and synthesizing new information. Thus, rather than ask students for their “muddiest point” at the end of your next class, why not try asking them “what have you learned today and what will you do with that knowledge?”
But then I stopped.
Why tell them anything? They had done the preparation for the presentations. They had sat through all of them. Each presentation was between 10 and 15 minutes long, and so there was quite a bit to observe. During the presentations, I noticed they were taking notes, just as I was. I recognized that by this point in the semester, they had surely developed their own critical eye and should have the ability to judge the presentations for themselves.
So, instead of telling them what I thought they should have learned, I just said “okay, what did you learn from your preparation for your own presentation and from listening your peers?” I then went around the room, soliciting responses, and wrote on the board – – in their words – – what they said.
As usually happens when I follow this format, I learned a few things. First, compiled, their list was longer than mine. They had noticed more than I had. Second, some of the things they noticed had never occurred to me. Thus, I learned something new. Third, I was much more relaxed, just listening to responses and writing them down than I would’ve been had I tried to perform my authority role and tell them what I thought. Fourth, through this process, I reinforced the principle that “talking is not teaching,” and that sometimes we play the role of teacher best when we just listen.
In the fall of 2017, for the same course, I tried a simple modification: papers were “due” at 9 PM the night before and then “accepted” until 9 AM the next morning, before class. Papers that came in “late” were not penalized. The difference between the two semesters was dramatic: across the four papers, only 15% on average came in after midnight. And that number was inflated because on the fourth paper, six of the students chose to review their papers once more before turning them in, and so they came in between 8 AM and 9 AM, not during the midnight hours. For the first three papers, 85% of the papers, on average, were turned in by 9 PM the night before.
With this simple modification in the due dates and times, students stopped “maniacal binging” (Boice 2000), completed their work well before midnight, and presumably got a good night’s sleep in the bargain. Using a simple tactic of signaling that papers were “due” at 9 PM, I gave the students a hard constraint that they used in planning how they allocated their time. They didn’t want to be “late,” even though “late” carried no penalty. (And no one ever asked me if there would be a penalty.)
I now use this technique on all my assignments, whether they are graded or just checked off when submitted. Having assignments due the night before not only gives students the opportunity for a good night’s sleep but also, if I so desire, gives me an opportunity to review their work and to make modifications in my lesson plan, if the submitted papers reveal any misunderstandings that I need to clear up. What is particularly attractive about this technique is that it works without the imposition of any penalties for “late” assignments. Following Lowman’s (2000) lead, I behave as if there will no such a thing as a “late” assignment and the students make my words come true.
Interested in learning more about late assignments? See this post.
When asked what they most dislike about teaching, many instructors put grading at the top of the list. They find the process time consuming and stressful, topped off by demands from students that their assessments be logically justified. Of course, this feeling is the same for the students themselves. Although we hate grading, students also hate writing these assignments and essays. Who hasn’t found themselves in a situation of confronting a student who feels treated unfairly in the grading process and whose persistent questioning reveals that a grade does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, upon close inspection, the grading seems arbitrary and hard to defend. What to do?
Grading needs to be done well to give students the feeling that they are being treated fairly in the assessment process. Instructors need to use the same criteria of reliability and validity in designing assessments that they use in their empirical research. Just as they might be called upon by reviewers to defend the quality of data used in an article, so also must they have an answer to students’ queries about the rationale for their marks.
From my perspective, “implicit bias” constitutes a threat to the integrity of the assessment process. Instructors need to take every possible step to reduce the possibility that grades reflect less the merits of the answers than the personal characteristics of the student or the arbitrary whims and fancies of the grading process. Race, class, gender, sexual identity, social capital, and other student characteristics can affect grading if instructors haven’t created a process to limit their effects.
In addition, I believe instructors’ overconfidence in their grading abilities constitutes another form of implicit bias that hampers their ability to assign grades fairly. Keeping the process opaque and not sharing grading criteria with the students emphasizes the unequal power between students and instructors, and is another source of student cynicism about the educational process.
What steps might instructors take?
First, grade all assessments blindly. This means making sure there is no identifying information available while grading the assignment. You can do this by having students turn in blue books with the cover page turned back, by having identification numbers instead of names, by having students fold over the top of the page on which the name is written, and so forth.
Second, prepare an answer key beforehand for all answers. Some instructors call this a “rubric.” The answer key should not be simply bullet points, but rather a fully written out answer, of the kind you would expect to earn full credit on the question. You could also have a list of characteristics or features you’d expect in the question, but the sample answer – – which should be posted or handed out to the students – – should be complete and in prose form.
Preparing the answer ahead of time lets the instructor know that a question can, in fact, be graded. In addition, it prevents “bracket creep” in which an implicit and unwritten template for an answer subtly changes as the instructor reads through the answers and subtly changes the criteria for a grade. If you aren’t certain as to whether your template is too tough, you should read a sample of the answers ahead of time, before grading them, and revise your template if necessary. The rubric should not be changed, once grading is underway.
Third, write out the comments necessary to justify your mark. Don’t just write a simple one or two-word phrase, such as “good job,” or “not complete.” Write enough information next to the answers so that you can explain to students, when they come to you for advice, why you gave that particular mark.
Fourth, grade all of one question before beginning to grade the next question. For example, if your exam consists of four essay questions, you would grade all of question one first, going through all the exams, and then shuffle the exams and grade all of question two. And so on throughout the four questions, in order. This ensures that you are using the same standard throughout your grading and that your grading is not influenced by marks that you have given for previous answers.
You must ensure that a student’ s grade on a previous question is not visible to you. Otherwise, that grade is likely influence the grade you give the current question. Turn over the previous page so that you cannot see it.
Firth, take breaks while grading, and do not attempt to binge on finishing the grading in one sitting. Mistakes are much more likely if you continue grading to the point of exhaustion!
Working to ensure that your assessments are graded reliably and validly requires a bit more preparatory work on an instructor’s part, but the extra work returns huge dividends. When students realize that you are taking great care to grade their work fairly, they take a much more positive view of the assessment process. By the time they get to college, many have become quite cynical about the way instructors exercise their power in handling assessments, and they will appreciate the extra effort you take to make the process as transparent as possible.
I pointed out that even I might be afraid to answer such a question. Such questions pose a severe challenge to the confidence of undergraduate students, because the instructor clearly knows the answer and they don’t. The answer is a “fact” which the instructor clearly thinks the students should have already known before they came to class. When it comes to answering questions about “facts,” there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right. When faced with this dilemma, students are understandably silent.
I suggested that he come up with nonthreatening questions: questions that didn’t put a student’s self-confidence and reputation at risk. Trying to begin a discussion with questions for which there is a “correct” answer makes salient the asymmetrical relationship between instructors over students. No one wants to look bad in the eyes of peers and so it is safer to say nothing and wait till somebody else answers or instructors give up and answer the questions themselves.
Is there a better way? What types of questions could you ask to begin a discussion? First, you could ask about something that everyone has seen or experienced. For example, in a class on the sociology of work, I asked students what is the best job they ever had and what were its characteristics? Everybody can answer such a question. Second, you could write a concept or principle on the board and then ask students to suggest examples. For example, you can ask for personal examples of a principle identified in the readings, rather than asking students to define the principle itself. In a class session on organizations and bureaucracy, I asked the students which aspects of the ordering process best exemplified what George Ritzer identified as the rationalization of fast food restaurants. It is critical in this process that you do not comment on the examples that are offered. Instead, simply compile the list. Third, you could ask students which previous class sessions or readings the day’s assignment reminded them of and why. Again, simply compile the list without editing it. Later in the discussion, after students have gained some confidence in participating, you can ask more difficult questions.
In addition to choosing questions for which there is no clear right or wrong answer, I follow several guidelines in getting discussions started. First, if at all possible, I use the whiteboard to keep track of student responses. Otherwise, trying to control the discussion process while at the same time keeping track of what is been said creates a high stress situation. You could also use an interactive polling system, such as Poll Everywhere. Writing responses on the board clears your short-term memory and also gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts while you decide on follow-up questions.
Second, I take care to make sure that if I’m writing answers on the board, I write them in the students’ own words. I rarely edit student responses and when I do, I always ask their permission. Writing the responses verbatim sends a strong signal that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you are going to tell them anyway.
Third, you should follow-up short or incomplete responses. Probe for more information by telling students that you need to make sure that you understand their meaning and thus you need a sentence or two from them. Point out that the few words you’ve written on the board might make little sense in a few minutes, when the discussion turns to assessing what’s been written in response to your original question.
When you are satisfied that you have responses that adequately cover the readings assigned for the day, then turn to editing what you’ve written on the board. This is a dangerous stage in the process, as it is here that instructors often hijack the process and begin selectively drawing from the writing on the board to give the lecture they had planned in the first place. Although the impulse to “correct” the unedited responses may be strong, don’t do it. Instead, turn to the students and ask them for suggestions for improving or simply using the list. For example, after I’ve written down the responses to my question about the characteristics of the best job students have had, I asked students if they see any pattern to the responses. The discussion naturally leads into various ways in which the dimensions of jobs can be analyzed. In another example, after listing all the comments about ordering systems in fast food restaurants, I asked if the list reminded them of any of Ritzer’s principles and why. Note that it is okay at this point to begin probing for relevance to the day’s instructional goals, because you’ll have shown the students that you are listening to them, that their words matter, and that you take their views seriously.
The next time you find yourself stumped by why students are sitting passively in the classroom, seemingly unable or unwilling to answer your questions, take a hard look at your questioning strategy. Rather than sparking a discussion, the very questions you’re asking may be shutting down the process.
He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.
After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. At least this way, it would be printed for all the world to see, and nothing beats having it in a hard copy when you want to make a point. An old colleague of mine, who loved using a syllabus for his classes, told me that I should consider using a printing service like Printivity to display all of the information when it came to the year and what the students would be expecting. It’s one of the only ways to make sure that they have been sent a clear message. So, I should definitely consider putting rules and regulations in this type of format. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”
On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.
I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.
My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.
First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.
When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, “Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:
Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”
Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”
Student: “well, will I be penalized?”
Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”
Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.” [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]
One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.
Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)
(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.
(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.
(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.
Interested in learning more about what to do about late assignments? See this post.