Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ethics of the Pop Quiz

When I was an undergraduate, which really wasn't all that long ago, attending classes and completing my coursework constituted the sine qua non of my university existence. And that was probably true for many of my classmates at Howard University. Sure, we had extracurricular activities (some political and some recreational, some artistic and some just plain self-destructive), but that stuff probably didn't take up nearly as many hours per week as the tons of things students are busy with between class sessions these days.

I first noticed the difference (between then and now) when I taught at Duke University and served as faculty-in-residence for a first-year dormitory. I did the latter for three energizing years, and each incoming class seemed more over-extended and hyper-scheduled than the one before.

They were all serious students. They wouldn't have gotten into Duke if they weren't. But they also boasted an amazingly full life outside of the classroom. They volunteered for every worthy cause you could imagine. They interned at some of the most prestigious institutions around. They played multiple sports, toured with high school musical bands, and some of them even had time to start their own non-profits. And they were doing this all at the same time. In high school!

Indeed, what was most shocking was the realization that this model of full-time schooling mixed with full-time everything else only got ramped up once they started college. They were so accustomed to being frantically busy that they didn't even blink at the prospect of piling on tons more extracurricular work to their demanding semesterly courses: cheerleader, columnist for the campus newspaper, volunteer for university and community programs, RA, GA, athlete, lead performer in the campus play, official MC for weekly spoken-word events on campus, and on and on and on. It was exhausting (and admittedly exhilarating) just to watch them run around campus.

Of course, they got most of this stuff done because they barely slept. Again, I lived in the dorm. I know this to be true. They might have gotten up a little later than I did each morning, but that's only because they went to bed as my alarm clock rang out.

I think that I probably did two all-nighters during my entire undergraduate career. Nowadays, some students are lucky if they get away with two all-nighters a month--or even a week.

And they do all this not just because they can (new media technologies facilitate such hectic social dynamics in truly unprecedented ways), but also because they know that we (their professors and advisers) expect it.

It is no longer enough to be valedictorian. You have to excel in the classroom and demonstrate a robust set of commitments far beyond it. Everyone is telling them that this is what is going to make them stand out. And they've been hearing that mantra for a long, long time now, which means that some of them have been juggling schoolwork with other kinds of work (with an eye towards scholarship competitions and college admissions) since well before high school. It is hard-wired into is generation's cultural DNA. They assume that future employers are looking beyond 4.0 grade point averages (especially in an age of supposed grade inflation), so they are meeting those expectations with a vengeance.

And since that is the backdrop, I always feel a little guilty about the fact that my testing instrument of choice is (and has always been) the pop quiz. After all, aren't we supposed to be treating students like adults? Providing them with the readings, giving them the test dates, and then asking them to manage their time such that they are prepared for the scheduled exam--or not, right?

My pedagogical model, instead, is always predicated on wanting to make sure that students read the materials as I assign them, in time to contribute to classroom discussions, not as their admittedly packed schedules allow. But is that fair? Infantilizing? Unreasonable?

My students know that the unannounced quizzes are easy 100s for those who have done the reading. There are no trick (or particularly difficult) questions on them, just a request that students demonstrate (in "short answer" form) a basic comprehension of the readings before we go over them.

I've even been known to manifest the pop threat if a large lecture class seems particularly under-attended one slow Wednesday morning in the middle of the semester. Again, it is a reward for the folks in attendance and a punishment for the students who thought to sit that day out. But should I leave students alone to manage their hectic semesters and stop waxing nostalgic/romantic about some bygone, seemingly prelapsarian, moment when the classroom was ostensibly the center of the undergraduate universe?


Brittany said...

It might be a little unfair, but not unethical--especially if college is supposed to prepare students for life, which could definitely be characterized as a series of unexpected opportunities to demonstrate what you've learned.

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