What is the role of shallow learning in higher education? Are facts and figures, names and dates, important? Posing this question in January (in the midst of interview season) the general consensus was, yes, facts will do nicely, thank you.
There are several ways to instil an appreciation of the finer details of historical evidence in students. Personally, I have found that a Pavlovian reliance upon sugar (namely chocolate) is an ideal motivator.
For several years past, I have instituted a weekly ‘pop quiz’ in my first-year seminars. The students are divided into two teams (usually randomly assigned), which they maintain throughout the module. For the first five to ten minutes of the seminar, I ask the students a series of short-answer questions from the required reading and relevant lecture. For example, one American history seminar was asked the following:
1. According to Cronon, what type of American history did Turner help establish?
2. Which future president made his name in the Spanish American War?
3. Which film character was based on William Randolph Hurst?
4. Which Apache medicine man led raids against Mexican and American expansion into the south west?
5. Which was William Jennings Bryan’s most famous political stance?
6. What was the importance of “How the Other Half Lives”?
7. Which Spanish mistake, do Adelman and Aron assert, do the Mexicans repeat?
8. What is the significance of hat colours in westerns?
9. What effect did the Civil War have on westward expansion?
10. What do Adelman and Aron assert is the difference between a borderland and a border?
11. To whom was the “Frontier Thesis” originally read?
12. Sioux is the French name for which tribe, that is, what is their self-designation?
13. Of which tribe was Great Chief Joseph the leader?
14. Name two of the three principal leaders at the battle of Little Big Horn.
15. Name two industrialists who shaped the American economy in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
16. Name a territory won by the Americans in the Spanish-American War.
17. Name a criticism of Turner’s Frontier Thesis.
18. In which year was the frontier declared closed?
19. Describe the relevance of the Ghost Dance.
20. Define Manifest Destiny.
Each correct answer earns the team a point, with five points awarded for answering a fairly random trivia question, which usually requires a wider knowledge of the period. For example:
What did Joe Dimaggio, Arthur Miller and John F. Kennedy supposedly have in common?
The team with the highest score is rewarded with a choice of sweets or mini-chocolates.
How did this all start? Innocuously enough.
When teaching as a postgraduate student, I began my very first seminar with a team-based quiz on European chronology. This served as both an ice-breaker activity and provided me with a rough idea of my students’ existing knowledge. When I began teaching as a post-doc, I reinstituted the quiz in a slightly more formal format and offered chocolates as an added incentive. The intention, however, remained simply to facilitate the learning of names and to establish the level of previous knowledge. When I returned to class the following week, however, my students were lined up, ready to begin the second quiz. Amused, I promised a quiz the following week and, in subsequent years, made the pop quiz a permanent fixture of my first-year seminars. This, I found out later, greatly annoyed some of my second-year students who had become addicted to afternoon chocolate.
Whenever I spoke of this process to colleagues, I received suspicious glances and charges of patronising, or even (jokingly) bribing, my students to attend my seminars. Yet, end of term feedback indicated only a preference for specific sweeties or a general increase in their quantity. A few even noted that the questions helped them identify those aspects of the reading that they had not really ‘got’ and which they should go and review. Two years into this process, I became slightly concerned that I was promoting Type II Diabetes and offered to replace the sweets with healthier alternatives, but this idea was soundly rejected by my students.
But, I hear you cry, did the programme of pop quizzes achieve more than tooth decay? Yes. I think it did.
After a few weeks of long silences and frustrated hair pulling, students began to prepare specifically for the quizzes, and with great success. I would often enter the room to see them hastily reviewing lecture notes or article conclusions, pooling knowledge with team-mates in preparation. Competition was often fierce, but always sportsman-like. For example, when one team was severely hampered by an outbreak of flu, the victorious side asked if their competitors (unfairly hindered) could share in the chocolate bounty.
Most telling, however, were the results of the final quiz. This final round was a review of previously asked questions, most of which the students were able to easily recall despite it having been many months since the relevant lectures.
Yesterday, I held my first pop quiz in my new post. Although the students certainly looked incredulous at the concept, most joined in with some degree of enthusiasm and, when the sweets were passed around, none refused the reward.
Having come to university hoping for a new, more refined and professional experience of education, will my new students find the pop quizzes ultimately patronising or will it continue to be an effective tool for promoting at least a basic cache of recall knowledge? I won’t know for sure until the end of term feedback is given, but I hope that these patronising games of mine will aid more than they annoy.
*Image courtesy of Smabs Sputzer