Maybe you are starting to get a sense of this, but I like it when my students are happy. I often use their satisfaction as evidence that a technique or lesson is “successful.” I understand that happiness may or may not correlate with LEARNING, but I can’t seem to shake the drive to make my students happy (though I am unwilling to give them extra credit or “easy” exams to accomplish this.) My push to make happy students isn’t linked to the external requirement for positive student evaluations; I am still technically a part-time instructor and we are officially evaluated ONCE every THREE YEARS. But I still find my pedagogy revolves around what students LIKE. While I think there are some very important reasons to stay true to this intention, I had an interesting experience this week that might provide an important nudge away from the “do what it takes to make students happy” camp.
We began the skeletal system in Human Anatomy on Tuesday. This lab is notorious on our campus for being the point at which quantity of content PLATEAUS. The labs prior to the bone lab are progressively more challenging, but none of the labs after the bone lab are MORE difficult (though they certainly are not easier!) I always note that if you can master the bone lab, you are ready to handle the rest of the course.
Because of the notorious difficulty of the lab, I came up with a task for students to carry out during their three hour lab period. I divided our bones into 6 stations (skull, superior limbs, pelvis, etc), provided groups with sticker tags, and asked them to create a practical quiz for their assigned station. I then gave them about 20 minutes to create the quiz for their station, complete with an answer key, and then I had them move through the stations and take each others’ quizzes. I found the experience a little exhausting in my morning lab, because there was a general undercurrent of disgruntlement about the activity that just made me tired. So when the afternoon lab came in, I ended up giving them a CHOICE: they could do my activity, or study on their own. All of the students in the afternoon lab chose to study on their own and the general mood was much more pleasant.
And then I graded their quizzes, which were given to each group at the end of their lab sessions. Ready?
The early lab (who DID the activity) scored an average of 1.2 points higher on their 10 point quiz when compared to the late lab (who studied on their own). Now these are students who FIGHT to the DEATH about one point on a 100 point exam…so this difference will be perceived as ENORMOUS for my team. Of course, I wondered if perhaps my afternoon students were always…more challenged than the early group, so I compared the averages for the two previous quizzes. One quiz had the early lab leading by 0.2 points and the other quiz had the late lab leading by 0.1 points. That counts as a wash in Wendy-land.
This was a “moment” for me. I won’t ever ditch the idea that happy students learn more and I really believe that the ability to motivate students is a powerful teaching tool. But I do think I need to follow my instincts and require my students to do the same, whether they are happy, or not.