Teaching a Class of Bleary-eyed Students Who Have Just Submitted a Big Paper

They’re definitely stressed. They’re sleep-deprived. They may be furious (at me!).  But they’re still riding the intellectual buzz that comes from finishing a research paper.

I love what happens in the classroom on the day a major assignment’s due.  Students come to class after having wrestled a mess of free-write drafts and marginalia and Post-It-Notalia into some semblance of order.  In pursuit of evidence to support their thesis, they’ve turned to sources that aren’t on the reading list, so their comments during class discussions are opportunities for them to introduce new knowledge, rather than a performance for my benefit.

A similar thing happens in lit surveys on the day of a scheduled quiz. Because the students have spent some time re-reading and reflecting, they’ve noticed connections they didn’t see when they were just trying to mow through the required number of pages.  The part of the class time that’s not devoted to the quiz always seems a little livelier.  Yet I find reading quizzes to be confrontational and artificial. Of course, journalism students students do need to practice writing under pressure, and there are courses in which the content is so voluminous and complex that regular quizzes can be an important tool for filtering and categorizing.

So maybe quizzes are a necessary evil, in order to generate that quiz-day discussion buzz… but a quiz doesn’t really teach… it doesn’t really let me assess much besides quiz-taking ability… a quiz takes time away from discussion (which is what really matters in a seminar). An a quiz adds an artificial time constraint that’s antithetical to everything we tell our students about how to read and write critically.  Oh… and I really hate grading quizzes… the students haven’t had the time to put much soul into their work, and because they’ve learned the value of drafting and revising, they know they’d have been able to make their point more convincingly if they’d only had more time.  When I take the time to write prompts that will generate short answers that I’d actually be interested in reading, the short quizzes turn into “quizzams” (a word I use in order to signal to my students that they’ll have to think, rather than regurgitate).

There are other ways to check to make sure students are doing the readings… you can dictate a very general question and have them supply specific examples in a free-write for a few minutes. (The ones who didn’t do the reading will spend most of the time flipping through the book — if they brought it with them.)

Of course, there are also the students who stay up all night to finish their paper, but are too tired to come to class.  I value the “post-paper buzz” so much that I have in the past added an explicit penalty to a major assignment grade, for students who skipped class on the day the assignment is due.  (That turned out to be more trouble than it was worth… now I just factor the student’s decision into their overall class participation grade.)

By the time they’ve submitted their final draft, I’ve already seen at least the thesis paragraph and a few pages of quotes, so I can call on students who’ve already thought in depth about whatever sub-topic gets raised in the discussion.  More hands go up while I’m talking, and more heads nod when a peer makes a good connection. Students expecting to be quizzed come in braced for the unknown. That energy can be put to good use in a pre-quiz review session, but I don’t get the idea that the effect is lasting.  On the other hand, students who come to class having just finished a research paper have a sense of accomplishment.

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