Sunday, February 23, 2014

Teaching strategies: Low stakes

My office promises to be a livelier place this week than it has been hitherto this semester.  The students in my Intro to Pseudology classes got their grades on their first paper, and they are very far from happy little campers.  Why?  Well, in a manner of speaking, I sandbagged them for their own good.

I knew their first papers were going to suck, although I was a little surprised by how bad they were in both form and content.  (I mean, damn.)  But since I knew what was going to happen in a general way, I planned for it in the syllabus construction.  The first paper, although just as long and complex as every other paper will be, is worth a trifling percentage of the final grade, making it a pretty low-stakes assignment.  This means that, mathematically, students' GPAs won't really be harmed even if they bomb the paper and get, say, a D-.  (Which, by the way, was the statistically average grade for this paper.)  I believe I have found a strong wake-up call to first-year students who have been floating through school for the last twelve years, and who completely forgot – if they ever knew – that eventually schoolwork will challenge you and you need to work harder than you did before.

Naturally, it wouldn't be useful just to scare the dickens out of them with a low grade without any hint of how to improve.  I wrote extensive grading notes to all of them, pointing out weaknesses that they can and should improve on for the next paper.  I don't doubt that some of my students will ignore this altogether, and settle into a self-pitying pout about how mean and inscrutable Dr. Koshary is.  But if they make the effort to see me at office hours, then they ought to walk away with a better idea of how to write a good paper.

I've used this approach before in other classes, but the last time I did so, the cries of woe were far more muted.  That was in an upper-division seminar class in which at least some of the students were on the ball from the start.  As for the other students, well...perhaps I indulged in a little bit of grade inflation there to keep them from freaking out about the course.  But what I saw after that was the students who should have been scared straight about their poor writing didn't take the hint: I keep forgetting that many students are happy to get a C, and have no motivation to earn anything higher than that.

Let us say I have solved that problem, at least.  My email has been blowing up since I released the grades.  Let's hope my low-stakes paper yields good results, instead of a bunch of angry, vindictive students.  Low stakes is a gambling metaphor with good reason: I'm essentially betting that the students will use this as a learning experience, rather than react unreasonably and shut off their brains out of spite and/or frustration.  And no bet is a sure thing.


  1. Yay! Beat some knowledge into them!

  2. I have a "you get to rewrite one paper" policy this term, for a similar reason--if you screw up, you can fix it, and you should be able to learn from your mistakes. We'll see how it works. I hope your office hours were...not miserable?