Dorothy* and Efua* were two of the most timid students in class. They were also the weakest. They were both orbiting a D in a class where the average was a B or better. It’s not that they had difficulty in understanding the material. In fact, when a question based exclusively on the day’s lecture was posed directly to them, they’d often offer up correct answers, if only softly – almost unto themselves if I wasn’t paying close attention. Their ability to understand complex matter was obvious. The problem was elsewhere. It was that they seemed to have poor memory for the topics they understood. Concepts that were crystal clear to them one day had no recall on a following day. And in a field like Math or Computer Science, where one idea builds on another this kind of handicap is debilitating. Perhaps this was at the root of their shyness? Their fear of being thought stupid when they were not?
A few days ago, I came across Kimberly Escamilla’s recent article on her blog. She talks about her own panic attack in class, which allowed her to empathize that much more with the anxiety and stress faced by her students. When I read that, I was inspired to write of my own related experience where I found that it is sometimes possible to exploit (yes, you read that right!) a student’s sense of panic into an enhanced learning experience for them. Well, up to a point, anyway.
I like to say that to memorize is to lose, but to understand is to own. But in this case, something more was needed. Something to nail down the understanding for good – because it was the understanding itself that was being lost to the wind the following day. Coincidentally, this was around the same time I had decided to experiment with the idea of Pair Programming in class – an idea for which I’m indebted to Elaine Haight who introduced me to it. That will be the subject of another forthcoming article, but the gist of it is that I get students to work in pairs, with one student driving (i.e. typing in a program) and the other navigating (calling out the lines of code to be typed).
Since I had also earlier planned to experiment with motivating my students using ECBux (my cool extra credit currency) I decided to up the ante a bit and offered ECBux to one pair who would bravely volunteer to come and code in front of the whole class, with their work projected on the big screen. After promptly establishing that I had no takers, I decided to volunteer students to step into the limelight. Of course, it makes total sense to pick on students most in need of Extra Credit to make the grade – yes? So on that day, as it happened, my picks were Dorothy and Efua. Needless to say, both were petrified by my choice. After suitable reassurance that I’ll be at their side all the way and that they would avail of constant guidance by me and the rest of the class, they looked as if they might just up and flee. So I tried to seal the deal with an offer of an extra ECBux each. At that point, they acquiesced willingly. Even better, they did a fine job, earning well deserved ECBux at the end.
The real surprise was to come the following day, when I built upon concepts taught during the previous lecture. These two were the quickest with answers and displayed a remarkable grasp of the prior material. Later, I happened to recount this curious incident to Ben Stefonik, wondering aloud if there might be a connection. Ben instantly brought my attention to a classic study on exactly that topic, summarized today in what is referred to as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The study links a subject’s retentive ability to the level of mental arousal at the time the target information is presented.
Ever since I came to know of this effect, I have become a great fan of calling out students and putting them on the spot. But then, of course, the study also warns of a point of diminishing returns. Performance and retentive ability suffer once the level of arousal exceeds a certain threshold. So I have to be on my guard to know when that’s about to happen. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet in my class. I try to provide a sandboxed and safe environment for students to be themselves without fear of reproach or embarrassment. Yet, I do have to be constantly on the lookout for subtle (and not so subtle) cues whether being put on the spot is causing them too much anxiety and stress. And until then, I just have to keep printing more ECBux.
- Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation”. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482
*Names are fictitious, of course.