Students in George Parrott's psychology courses have an unusual requirement: they must bring homemade snacks each week to the laboratory section, and they need to work out a schedule such that groups of students make sure each session is covered, and that snacks aren't repeated from week to week. If there are no snacks, Parrott walks out of his class at California State University at Sacramento, and the students lose that week's instruction.
Parrott has been teaching at the university since 1969. He says he started this requirement a few years after he arrived -- and that most students have appreciated the ideas behind the rule (which he says are more educational than culinary). But on Thursday, when students in the morning section of Foundations of Behavioral Research didn't bring muffins (or anything), he enforced his rule. He left class and took his teaching assistant to breakfast. One of the other sections missed its snack obligation one day last month, and he left that class, too. Ever since, the snack schedule has been followed by the students in that class.
This is Parrott's last semester before retirement, but his teaching technique -- in use for more than 30 years -- is now being subjected to scrutiny. Some of the students in the section he didn't teach on Thursday complained, and the university is now investigating.
Joseph Sheley, the provost at Sacramento State, said via e-mail that the university wants to be sure of the facts, and plans an inquiry this week. But he also said that he would "ask the psychology department to review whether or not the practice is appropriate within the department's curricular and learning outcome goals."
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Parrott defended his teaching methods. He said he could understand why some students would be frustrated about the missed class time, but that people should view his requirement as a valid pedagogical choice.
A graduate of Cal State's Chico campus, Parrott said that when he was an undergraduate, courses had 12 to 20 students, and those in a class formed close ties among themselves and with the professor. "Those days are long gone," Parrott said. The course in question is supposed to have a maximum of 42 students, although this year he has 52 in the section that skipped snack last week. That makes it hard for students to connect. So does the nature of Sacramento State's student body. "It's a commuter rat race. Students drive in and go home and never connect with their fellow students," he said.
Enter the snack requirement: Parrott said that he's teaching students to work together to set a schedule, to work in teams to get something done, and to check up on one another, since everyone depends on whoever has the duty of bringing snacks on a given week. Typically, no individual should be involved in preparing the snack more than twice a semester, he said.
Parrott said that considerable research shows that students learn more if they develop the skills to work in teams, to assume responsibility for projects, and get to know their fellow students. Team members need to count on one another, he said, and his students learned Thursday that if someone fails at a task for the team, there are consequences. "They need to learn to check on one another and clearly they didn't get that done," he said. "This was an important lesson."
There are some practical considerations for the requirement as well. Lab sessions run three hours, so some people get hungry. And the snacks, he said, make the classes slightly less formal and thus promote closer ties between instructor and students. As for the requirement that the snacks be homemade, he said that he wants the snacks to be healthy. "I'd like stuff without the total chemical treatment" that is found in packaged snacks, he said. He added that he rarely eats the snacks, but wants them there for everyone else.
People typically bring muffins, cookies or coffee cake to morning sessions, Parrott said. One of his afternoon sections recently featured pizza.
Alexander C. McCormick is director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which has found positive impacts on students from working together, and working on projects outside of class. He said he would be hesitant to say too much without knowing all the details of the discussion at Sacramento State. But he said that the snack requirement may help to "build connections and community among students -- especially challenging when most students are commuters." Further, he said that such a requirement "can also help reinforce skills like collaboration, organization, planning, etc."
McCormick said that "it's good to help students recognize they share responsibility for a successful class, though I think this is both more clear and more powerful when connected to the subject matter." For instance, he said, students might gain more by preparing or maintaining lab equipment or by discussing projects and writing them up together than by preparing a snack.
And McCormick also mentioned concerns about the sanction of the professor leaving class. "When the professor doesn't teach because someone didn't bring a snack, who gets blamed and what are the consequences for connections among students?," he asked. "Is it right to deprive all students of the class when one or a group fail to or are unable to prepare and bring a snack? That's certainly arguable. It also seems to empower one student who may not care much about the class."
Although Parrott said he is convinced that his students gain from his technique -- even when he walks away from class -- he said he couldn't think of another faculty member who shares his approach. He plans to stick to his rule for his last semester. Given that he is on track to retire, he said that if told to stop enforcing the rule, "I'd probably ignore it."