‘Dear Forums …’: Jedi Mind Tricks in the Classroom

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Image: Huynh Kim Chí/Wikimedia Commons

In this special edition of the best conversations from The Chronicle's discussion forums, we look at a long-running thread on how to motivate students to learn and love you for it.

Question (from scienceprof): On another thread about attendance, cc_alan said:

I allow a bonus for "seat time." While I don't give points for attendance, I do use it for borderline grades. At the end of the term, if students have missed less than x hours of class time, then I add y% to their total percent. ...

It's a Jedi mind trick to change the emphasis from "I have to show up or I'll get docked points" to "I'll get a bonus if I attend regularly."

This ingenious idea made me wonder if others had Jedi mind tricks they’d like to share.

My best is this: I used to require students to rewrite lab reports that were below a "B," which resulted in a lot of whining. Now I ALLOW students to rewrite, and I get a lot of gratitude.

What’s your favorite Jedi mind trick?

Answer (from grasshopper): I give more assignments than there are points allotted for assignments, so that students can choose not to do an assignment here or there, with the option of making it up later.

This is fan-super-tastic because ...

... students never ask for "extra credit," since the extra credit is built right into the grading scheme. I've had to give "extra credit" once, and that was due to medical trauma.

... I rarely receive emails begging for extensions, because they have a chance to make up the assignment at a later date.

... it fosters a sense of responsibility for what and how they learn, which somewhat counteracts the consumer mentality — we're all producing knowledge together.

... most students will do the assignments at the beginning of the term to get them out of the way, meaning less grading for me at the end of term, when I'm most busy.

Answer (from thenewyorker): On exams out of ten image identifications and essays (worth 10 points each), I give at least fourteen. The students then have to choose ten out of the fourteen. This gives them a sense of control, and since they can choose the ones they feel more confident about, the test anxiety eases a bit.

Answer (from mountainguy): I let students re-write any assignment (except final essays) for a higher grade, provided that it was submitted on time. I then calculate their new assignment grade using the following formula: [.6(original grade) + .4(re-write grade)].

Students think I'm doing them a favor and rarely grade-grub about written work. Few of them take me up on the offer. It's too much work for them because they actually have to pay attention to what my comments say.

Answer (from scienceprof): I used to give 10 quizzes and drop the two lowest. Now I give at least 10 quizzes, and keep the 8 highest. The students beg for more quizzes, so anytime I think they haven't "gotten" something I throw in an extra quiz, with no complaints.

Answer (from siduri): In writing-intensive classes, I let the students help make up the rubric. I list the 3-4 items that I'm going to grade on, then they can list a few more that they want on the rubric as well (although I do reserve the right of refusal). This actually has a pedagogical purpose beyond making me seem so much nicer than I really am. It forces them to evaluate their writing, as they have to identify what they’ve done well. And there’s also half a chance that they might actually pay attention to what's on the rubric.

Answer (from summers_off): Here’s a technique I’ve used when multiple students ask for an extension on an assignment: I give students a "bonus" for turning in the assignment on the original due date (usually about 5 points for an assignment worth 200 points). Students who turn it in on the new due date aren’t penalized, but they also don’t get a bonus. Students who turn it in after the new date do get a penalty, but I almost never get any papers after the revised due date. Students perceive this as fair to students who were ready to turn in the assignment on time and fair to those who have a "valid" excuse for needing more time.

Answer (from tt_finally): On the day a paper is due, I sometimes (especially if I'm not going to be able to get to the grading for a few days anyway) allow students time to read over their paper and self-evaluate based on the rubric. Then they get time to discuss the paper's strengths and weaknesses with a partner and plan how they’d improve it. Then I tell them that they can turn it in next class period, without a late penalty, provided they have the paper with them for the current class.

My students hate peer review, but love this (which is, of course, peer review). Those who choose to submit the paper that same day have less room to complain if they get a poor grade (I can rightly say that I gave them a chance to revise the paper before turning it in). Those who revise/edit are happy for the chance to do so and sometimes correct sloppy errors, making grading a bit less arduous. Everyone is happy.

Answer (from profxfiles): A few days before each of my four exams in my gen-ed classes, I hand out a list of a dozen essay questions. Then I choose two for the test at random. That way, none of the students can claim to be "surprised" by the questions, yet I give them such a broad and comprehensive list of questions that they would have to know all of the major concepts in the class in order to be fully prepared.

Answer (from atalanta): I used to take great pains to incorporate suggestions from previous years’ course evaluations into my teaching the next year, but my students didn't seem to appreciate it.

"We want practice problems!," they said one year. So I posted practice problems on the web.

Then the next year, they said: "There are not enough practice problems!" So I posted more, plus practice exams, all with solutions.

The next year they said: "The practice exams are too easy. And professor Atalanta should show us how to solve all the practice problems during lectures!" ... and so on. “We want lecture notes online! And “She should answer all emails within 12 hours!” ...

NOW I withhold all that extra stuff until an opportune moment arises. I post a bare-bones website at the beginning of the term. Two weeks later, some student raises his/her hand in class:

"Would it be possible for you to suggest some extra problems for practice, in addition to the homework?"

Atalanta looks thoughtful, and replies earnestly, "Yes, I think I can put together some extra problems for you." Then I reveal the link to Practice Problems on the course website ... which has been there all along, of course.

The midterm exam approaches. I announce, "I've received a few requests for a practice exam" — even if I haven't — "... so I've just posted an old exam with solutions to give you an idea of what kind of questions to expect."

Students request a special exam-review session and we don't have time for that, so I say, "Over the weekend, I'll put together some review materials for you on the course website." Then I unhide my "exam-preparation hints" page.

And so on throughout the term. The students think I’m amazingly responsive, and I think this system works better for them too. If I overwhelm them with material on the website at the start of the term, they sometimes forget about it (or it for granted). If new material appears sporadically throughout the term, I think they’re more likely to use it.

Answer (from magistra): I had some success with the following technique in a very good, very small class, but it might not work in some classes:

For an exam, I had each student make the exam. Then they passed it to the next person, who took it. They passed it to the next person, who marked it.

I let them take the exam in class, but then take it home as well, so they had lots of time to do it and ask both me and the author questions. Still, it was essentially a take-home test. Grading was based half on the exam, and half on writing and correcting the exam (loosely).

I got to see what material students thought was important; I didn't have to write an exam; and the tedium of grading was absent, though I did still have to grade. The students liked the exam because it was take-home, plus they felt they had some control over it, and an "easy" A. But by the time they'd completed all three phases of the exam, they knew the material well.

There are potential pitfalls, of course: The students told me that the hardest part was making the exam. They spent far longer on it then I'd intended, and they made all the mistakes new teachers tend to make — they made it too long and too hard, or they skipped some material, etc. Most of them just mimicked my exams since they didn't know where to start. So it’s necessary to give some guidelines. If you've got a lot of students who want to be teachers, though, that might be an argument for the assignment. None of my students were studying to be teachers, but they still thought the exercise was worth doing.

Answer (from scienceprof): Here's my ultimate Jedi mind trick for stopping grade-whining after assignments: I never make assignments worth 100 points. It doesn't matter how many points you want the assignment to be worth, any point value other than 100 will do. Students who will beg and wheedle and demand explanations for why they got 88 instead of 90 on the exam won’t say a word when they get 106/120.

I have no idea why this works.

Answer (from phlegmatic): If you are giving a smallish number of quizzes where you can add a bonus point to each quiz without it affecting the overall grade in a significant way, do it. Students love bonus points. I give them one bonus point for signing their name to the quiz. They might earn only one point for the entire quiz, but they seem to appreciate it.

You can also give an optional paper that can reduce the weight of some other weighty assignments. So students can choose between Option One (more heavily weighted midterm and final exams) or Option Two (less heavily weighted midterm and final, add in a short paper to offset those weights). As we saw above, students like choices.

I also give one "throwaway" question on the final exam or on the last quiz of the semester, usually a multiple choice question on "how awesome was this class?" and all the answers are just about how awesome I am and how awesome the class is. Students love this, even though it's usually only 1 percent of the grade for that exam. They just think it's wonderful to get a freebie.

Answer (from dasveritas): I can't speak for the long term impact of this, as this is my first semester teaching, but here is my best trick so far:

I spent a good deal of time this summer trying to structure my course to accommodate the large enrollment of my classes and traditionally writing-centered evaluation of the course material. I decided against having students write before they have the basics of the field, so the first half of the course focuses on providing content. In this context, I had something of a stroke of brilliance (or stupidity, only time will tell).

First, I assigned extra credit short-answer questions about the quiz material. Almost every student took me up on them, and no one complained about having to write what were essentially essays about the material. Now, I’ve gotten them to deeply consider the material, and they aren't worried about the feedback. They know that they cannot lose points..

Second, I decided, after several prompts from students, to allow them to take the multiple-choice Blackboard quiz up to 7 times. Only the highest grade counts. This had some outstanding results:

(1) They got immediate feedback.

(2) They were able to immediately use that feedback to improve their grades -- all without me having to do any additional work.

(3) Many students took the quiz more than 3 times, usually until they earned a perfect score. By making it an option to be a perfectionist, my students voluntarily rehearsed the material until they earned a perfect score. Considering how powerful the testing effect is for learning, this has really sharpened their understanding of the material.

(4) The perfect score was the most common grade in my class; almost all my students got an A on this material.

(5) My students were no longer intimidated by the material because I made it very clear to them how they would be evaluated, and they knew that they could always get an A with enough effort — even if they messed up the first time.

(6) Accordingly, they didn’t protest when I moved quickly or tackled complicated material. Rather, the multiple exposures to positive reinforcement for engaging in course material seems to have built interest in the course. I have been teaching at a very high speed, and covering very complex material for an intro course. At the end of that section, the students not only actively engaged in discussion, but held polite and rigorous debates with one another.

(7) The beauty is, they think my class is easy, but they’re actually studying hard without realizing it. (Can you imagine if every student reviewed and quizzed themselves multiple times before each test?)

If you use Blackboard for multiple-choice quizzes, you should definitely allow your students to take the quiz multiple times. It is amazing.

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