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Last week I asked a few open-ended questions, and my wise and worldly readers stepped up. I’ll share some highlights.

One question was around assignments that get students sufficiently interested that they become engaged intrinsically, as when someone falls down a YouTube rabbit hole.

One instructor posts a question to the class at the end of each week: “What are you most curious or confused about from today’s class?” He reports that following through on the responses requires a willingness to improvise a bit from the syllabus but that the discussions are often more than worth it.

My Inside Higher Ed colleague John Warner suggested a few prompts he uses in to, as he put it, “keep them moving under the influence of their own curiosity.” I like “under the influence of curiosity” quite a bit. Those prompts are:

  • If it isn’t true, why do people believe it?
  • What if?
  • How’s it all going to end?

He also uses what he calls “impossible arguments” to get students writing, such as, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” I like that one because students could take it in any number of directions, but they don’t typically already have much invested in it emotionally. In current parlance, a question like that is unlikely to be triggering. In the context of a composition class, content that’s quirky but harmless can allow students to have fun with form. When I taught debate, I did something similar with “resolved: peanut butter is better than jelly.” By getting content out of the way, we were able to look instead at technique. Obviously, something like that works better in some classes than others.

On Twitter, someone mentioned that introducing students to the ways that the progressive income tax works is a pretty reliable generator of rabbit holes. I can believe it.

Friday’s post included a story about a technique I used for essay questions on in-class exams. I’d allow students to bring one handwritten “cheat sheet” no larger than a four-by-six-inch index card, and they’d have a choice among several questions. The students spent so much time strategizing the perfect index card that they accidentally studied.

A local correspondent mentioned doing something similar. Students have to submit a finished exam and include a list of the questions about which they were unsure. If there’s still time, they’re allowed to use whatever resources are at hand to double-check those answers. Her argument is that in the real world, folks aren’t expected to know everything cold; it’s often more important to know where to find it. And the volume of information, relative to the amount of time, means that there’s no earthly way a student who didn’t really get it could use that time well enough to get by. At most, a student who is mostly on the ball might catch and fix a stupid mistake.

Apparently, since students knew that the option was coming, they spent a lot of time in advance organizing notes, preparing indexes and the like. In other words, in trying to beat the system, they accidentally studied. Well done!

A more ambitious correspondent managed to generate unique tests for every single student. The details are complicated, but it boiled down to using technology to ensure that anyone copying off anybody else’s test was sabotaging himself. That can certainly work, although it strikes me as more about punishment and deterrence than encouraging studying.

I’m a fan of approaches that align the student’s incentives with the goals of the course. That means finding ways to tie short-term self-interest with longer-term learning. Students are people; when asked to act against their own self-interest in the name of an abstract good, compliance will be spotty. But if their self-interest aligns with the desired good, then you have a pretty durable system.

My thanks to everyone who responded. Twitter may be devolving into a cesspool, but we still have some terrific, thoughtful dialogue here. It can be done …

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