Do we get the students we deserve?

Hypothesis: If you assume that students are trustworthy, independent learners, then they will behave trustworthily and learn independently.

Corollary: If you assume that students are always trying to cheat and cut corners, then they will cheat and cut corners.

Experimental method: Last semester I taught an evening section of my standard, gen-ed level Theology of Work class. There were 19 students from a good cross section of the college, though theology majors were disproportionately represented (because three of them needed the class to graduate). During the semester, the class seemed fine, neither unusually good nor unusually bad. Our in-class discussions were fairly typical for a Core class: some nights they were lively, other nights they had no spark.

Then we came to the final exam. In a stroke of either insight or madness, I decided that in a course in which I argued strongly for the value of leisure and contemplation, I could not legitimately demand that students answer a long list of sharply-defined, rigid questions for the final. (In the terms of one course author, I couldn’t demand ratio on the final when I had been arguing all semester for intellectus.) So I decided I’d open things up for them. I gave them an essay to read and a question to prepare to answer. This was the complete exam:

CORE 269: Theology of Work                  Spring 2014

Final exam

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” –Matthew 11:28

In the blue book, write an essay in response to Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” drawing, as appropriate, from concepts you have learned in this course. Do not assume that your reader is familiar with the concepts.

Write from your moral, spiritual, and intellectual convictions about work, leisure, and the spiritual life. Say how you want to live your life, or how people in general should live their lives, given what you know about the theology of work and in response to what Kreider is saying in the essay. If it helps, you can imagine that you are writing your response also in the opinion pages of the New York Times.

Do your best. The exam is worth 50 points, about 17% of the course grade.

It is worth noting that there was no midterm in this course, because I didn’t want to use up a whole evening just proctoring an exam. This means that the students went into the final with no idea how I would grade their work, what I was “looking for” in their answers.

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was looking for, either. I planned to grade leniently, in case the students interpreted my lax instructions as signifying low expectations. I figured most of them would write a few short paragraphs and finish in a half-hour or so.

On exam night, I reiterated the advice: “Do your best.” In fact, I said that when they turned in their exams, I’d ask each of them if they did their best. They wrote for a long time. No one finished in under an hour, and a few took longer than the allotted time. Each student told me they did their best. I told each one I was proud of them. But I still didn’t know what they had written.

Results: Then I graded the exams. They were magnificent, without question the best batch I had ever read. Even the “worst” ones were well-articulated and explained in detail the key concepts the students used. I didn’t say how many theorists to draw upon, but most students drew upon more than I would have demanded, had I asked a more traditional essay question. The students wrote from the heart as well as the mind, with true conviction.

The grades were embarrassingly high. Higher even than the students said they expected, based upon their answers on the course evaluations. (In my experience, students are more typically too optimistic about their final grades.) A part of me wondered if I had done something wrong, if I had gone too easy on them.

Or maybe when you just ask someone to do their best and nothing more, they do their best.

Discussion: If the hypothesis is true, it’s because our assumptions about students shape how we behave toward them, including how we design assignments. And your behavior in turn helps determine their response to you. If you project hostility toward someone, you should not be surprised if they get defensive. If you come across as welcoming to a guest in your home, then they will act like a good guest.

Limitations: The sample size is small, just a single class. Maybe there really was something exceptional about this collection of students, some hidden variable. When I was tallying the final course grades, I noticed that every student had completed every assignment. Attendance was very high. No one turned in major assignments late. This group had done the work all along; I just hadn’t noticed. Maybe it wasn’t that I trusted them on the exam. Maybe they were ready for it anyway.

But the results were so good, it seems like it’s worth trying again.

Do you find that your assumptions about students shape students’ behavior? How have you displayed those assumptions? Have students ever defied expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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