On the Spot? Or In the Spotlight?

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 wasnescuelas’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. Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.32.33 PM

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.



  1. 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.

Posted in Student Motivation | Leave a comment

My assignments are due at 11:59pm

second1n-2-webChang*, my student, asked me why my assignments are due at 11:59pm each Sunday – Why not midnight? Wouldn’t that be easier to type into Etudes? 🙂

Good question. I’ve had other students ask me that too. Luckily, I have a good answer, which also sets it up for a point to be made. I tell them that in the past my assignments were indeed due at midnight. But I found that most of the students ended up doing their work at the last minute. So I went and took that last minute away. Now they’re due at 11:59 instead.

When I tell them that, which, fortunately, they find mildly amusing, I have an opportunity to talk to them a bit about procrastination, and about my own past struggles with it and how I overcame it (well, most of the time, anyway). The truth is that our world is filled with temptations. And some of them are hard to resist. It’s easy to give in to the suspicion that if we don’t enjoy something right away, we’ll lose the opportunity to enjoy it forever. Indeed, it frequently seems that our brain has evolved to do  everything in its power to find reasons why that would be true. But moments of calm detached reflection are all that’s needed to realize that more often than not, the thing we want to enjoy will still be there, fresh as ever, when we come back to it after we’re done with our chores.

It’s true that computer programming (any scholarly pursuit, actually) ought not be a chore. I’m fond of droning on that the most important takeaway from a college course shouldn’t be a letter grade, but the discovery of a lasting love for the subject: “Once you’ve developed that love, there’s no stopping you … The happiness you’ll get from the mastery of the material is deep, and consequently that much deeper is my own vicarious enjoyment (as a teacher) of your mastery.” That epiphanic moment when things just click and the learning process becomes its own reward is positively exhilarating to experience, even second hand (Isn’t that why we’re teachers?) As Dweck points out far more forcefully in [1], the growth mindset, which learns because it loves doing so, is far more likely to succeed (and have fun while at it) than one that does so for other reasons. But to get to that point where one has gathered enough momentum to plow forward no matter what, the moment when appreciation of the subject becomes the fuel for a relentless forward march (I think of this as a point of no return) requires some up front work. And my work is to make sure that this other work for my students is as easy as possible.

potterI strive to find new ways to make the learning experience enjoyable for my students.  I constantly experiment with tried and trusted techniques recommended by my more experienced colleagues. Yet, I appreciate that there are some aspects of any subject inherently hard for students to find enjoyable at first, unless they’ve gone through the rites of passage to master less enjoyable preparatory material (especially during the first few weeks of each term). True fulfillment typically comes from the creative aspects of an art or science, and this must wait until after the prep work is done – A master potter didn’t become one until after a few thousand (or more?) misshaped pots had been thrown: It would be unrealistic to assume that the potter enjoyed making every one of these “practice pots” lining the way to her success.

rosy pathAnd so,” I tell them, “a deep satisfaction and lasting enjoyment awaits. But the path to it may not always be rosy everywhere.” I remind them that I am (and everyone else at Foothill are) there for them to make that path easy. We’re committed to and continually looking for ways to make the journey as pleasant as possible. But at the end of the day, a student must believe that the end will be worth it and develop something like a dogged determination to carry on, even when the going gets tough because – just because – they take it on faith that it will be worth it.

These constant reminders from me seem to be working. Either these, or my secondary counsel to them following on from the previous one: That drink with their friends or the new movie on Netflix would be far more enjoyable if consumed guilt-free – without the nagging memory of unfinished business they have to get to after enjoying their premature reward. Yes, that must be it. By working towards a future reward, the work becomes more palatable and the reward, when earned, more enjoyable. The other way around taints the up-front enjoyment of the reward in my mind, not to mention turning the later activity into a real chore!



  1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

*Names are fictitious, of course.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gluttons For Punishment

BOB* was getting his teeth cleaned when his dentist found a cavity. He said that it was soEasy way, Hard way far gone that it probably needed a root canal right away. He suggested that Bob make an appointment for it with his secretary on the way out. Bob thought about it under the influence of novocaine and promptly decided to put it off until later. It wasn’t until it was too late and the pain jolted him awake from his deep slumber that he realized the value of his dentist’s counsel. An aching tooth has a way of drilling good sense into our heads in a way incomparable to anything else. Even Shakespeare knew it when he sang (in Much Ado About Nothing):

For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods,
And made a push at chance and sufferance.

I can’t fault Bob for his procrastination. The truth is I have been a procrastinator myself, and still am from time to time. I guess we are gluttons for punishment, all of us. At least I know I am… or was. However, I think experience makes us less likely to procrastinate and save ourselves the pain of doing tomorrow what ought to be done today. I encounter many students with the mindset I used to have during my own early student days. Learning challenging material is hard work, and I’m not going to pretend it becomes no work at all. But it does become surprisingly easy with a very small amount of preparatory work.

I find that a student who’s even skimmed through the topics to be covered during a lecture is immensely better positioned to absorb the content of a lecture than one who hasn’t. But often, many students simply turn up to lectures unprepared. They prefer to wait until after the lecture is over to review the topics covered in class. They believe that lectures are magic capsules that transport knowledge directly into their brains. And some take notes furiously.

Personally, I discourage my students from taking notes. Sometimes I quote my professor from my own student days: “A lecture ought not be a method for transferring notes from the lecturer’s notebook into the student’s without passing through the minds of either”. Instead, I remind them that with a little preparation before the lecture, a hard future task becomes a surprisingly easy one (at least significantly less difficult). I tell them that’s all it takes – No need to master the material, nor even learn chunks of it. All it takes is anticipation – To look briefly at the list of topics that will be covered and put your mind on alert for receiving new ideas. Why impose a harder task on ourselves tomorrow when it could be done a lot easier today?

So I ask them, exaggerating slightly, “Who wants to trade in 5 minutes of their life for 60?” Of course, they’re baffled when they hear that question, so I explain further: “Ifeasy-hard someone were to say they’d extend your life by an entire hour in exchange for 5 minutes
of your time now, AND there’s no catch, would you take it?” The answers invariably come back overwhelmingly affirmative. Then I tell them that an hour’s worth of review after a lecture could be saved if all they did was spend five minutes before it simply skimming the list of topics to be covered.

A few students stopped by a little while ago and thanked me for this suggestion. Apparently this simple insight is not an obvious one to students. A stitch in time saves nine.

It would be great if the psychologists among us could point me at empirical studies done on this front and share data that corroborates this informal suggestion.


*Names are fictitious, of course.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In a Restaurant, You Eat

Albert* simply loved the new restaurant in town. It was posh and had great ambiance. In fact, he loved it so much that he’d go there by himself lest he be distracted from enjoying it by his dinner partners’ small talk. What’s more, he’d often go there and pay for the most expensive dish they had, but tell them he doesn’t want it. He’s simply sit for a few hours, enjoy the atmosphere and go home.

To most of us who read the above paragraph, something seems odd about Albert. Sure – a restaurant may have great ambiance, but its primary purpose is to fill our bellies. If not, they wouldn’t be calling it a restaurant, would they? It doesn’t seem normal for someone to go there simply to enjoy the atmosphere. If, instead, Albert had eaten and enjoyed his meal and come out thinking that was a great experience overall, we wouldn’t have thought him so odd.

restaurant-plush-seatsIn “The Luncheon”, a short story by the British author, Jeffrey Archer, a character observes when entering a posh restaurant: “… too many waiters and plush seats for my liking. You can’t eat either, but you can be charged for them.” He couldn’t have made a more penetrating observation. The primary purpose of a restaurant is to provide food, everything else is secondary, including the ambiance and service. You expect reasonable standards for everything else, but if the food was horrible, nobody would go there.

And so it is with education – Good education costs money, even though it may not always be money the student sees and touches. Much of it is paid for by their parents, the community, and the government. Even when students actually pay their “fees” for a course, they often forget that it’s only the tip of an iceberg: a subsidized cost, the whole of which is being shouldered by the government for them.

Of course, education has to be fun, and you’d also expect to have some fun times in your college life outside of class, but you wouldn’t go to college simply and exclusively to have fun. You go there for an education and have fun on the side, just as you go to a restaurant with the primary purpose of eating, while enjoying its ambiance on the side. When these priorities get inverted is when problems start to happen.

students-partying-hardSometimes I see promising students struggling in class because they partied hard the night before. They hadn’t taken the effort to work through their homework problems or come prepared after a required reading. I use this analogy to illustrate the importance of setting priorities right. I tell them that when that happens, it’s like they paid for something valuable and expensive, but chose not to take it. I’ve had reasonable success (measured by the improvement in performance or attentiveness) so far.

Often we forget the relative importance of things in life and need to be reminded. Isn’t it fair to expect that our precious students might also need to be? It’s so easy to let a new-found freedom get to one’s head that it’s important for mentors and parents to constantly remind younglings that there will be plenty of places and times to party down the road, but here and now, their first priority is to get their money’s worth of a good and solid education. It’s been paid for. I suspect my motivation spiels often work better when I remind them that we’re not here to stuff education down their throats against their will, but to simply offer them what they have paid for, to give them an opportunity to take what belongs to them. When they understand and realize that, sometimes I find they renew their commitment to claim what is rightfully theirs – an education.


*Names are fictitious, of course.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Nothing Buys Like Money!

I’ve been handing out cash to my students these last two weeks and so far it’s been great. Oh boy, you should look at ’em fighting over it… I mean, for it. Umm… ok, that’s not entirely true – it’s cash, all right, but not the kind they could use outside of Foothill – why, even outside my class.

One EC Bux Dollar bill

Yup. That’s what it looks like.

There are only three things in this world with […] unconditional acceptance: dogs, doughnuts and money” or so says Lawrence Garfinkle from Other People’s Money. These are the things, according to him, that have value, and can make people do things for you. I decided to experiment with his advice – I want to motivate my students to be more interactive in class. But because I can’t hand out puppies (I just want to adopt all of ’em myself), or doughnuts (they get old really fast), I decided to try the next best thing – money. And how could I possibly do it better than make my own moolah? That’s why I got right down to it.

Last week I made a system to generate Extra-Credit Dollar Bills – EC Bux, I call ’em. These dollar bills look legit, and come with a tracking system to protect against counterfeits. I printed and cut about 40 such dollar bills per course, and now use them to reward desirable class behavior or good coursework. My hope is that by the end of the quarter, all my bux are belongs to my students. If you want to experiment likewise, feel free to use my little online web-app to generate your own currency.

You can access the app at: http://ecbux.info – Here’s how I use the bux:

  • I tell my students they can trade in the bux for points from me in the last two weeks of the quarter at one point per dollar (your exchange rate may be different).
  • I allow them trade their bux for favors (I hope academic) from their classmates. I feel it important to give them this power and freedom, and suspect this ends up increasing the value of the currency in their eyes. At the end of the day, I believe most students would prefer to hang on to their hard-earned cash. Note that the bux have no value to anyone not in the class for which they were generated.
  • I tell them that any dollar bill with more than one name written on its back is invalid. They can’t be exchanged for fractional points to multiple parties. So, if they choose, students can lay claim to their bux at any time by writing their name on the back.
  • The serial numbers on the currency are course-specific, of course. I can check them against a table generated at the time the bux are made. And bux can only buy points for the student whose name is written on the back.

Of course, much of this is automated, so you don’t have to do any house-keeping. Well, we’re not quite there just yet. I’m still working on automatic counterfeit identification using a mobile app. Hopefully, soon you’d be able to point your phone’s camera at a bill and have the app tell you whether you’re looking at a legit bill, and if so, for what course and issued when. But until then, you have to do that last bit of verification yourself – I provide the table of serial numbers, though. Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Visit the website: http://ecbux.info (Just snagged it from godaddy today, Jan 15 , how  ’bout that?)
  2. Select a secret phrase that will be known only to you. This is used in the generation of your currency’s serial numbers. Enter this secret phrase where it says so in the web app (See the picture below). It’s important that you remember this secret because when I eventually release the mobile app to verify your currency, you’ll need to enter the same secret (but only once) into the app.
EC Bux Screen 1

EC Bux Web App – Screen 1

  1. Select the number of dollar bills you want to print.
  2. Hit “Go”
  3. Now wait, or get a cup of tea as the rainbow square spins.

EC Bux Web App – While You’re Waitin’…

  1. Please be patient – the app is running on my personal web server that’s also running a dozen other web apps. It may take up to half a second to generate each dollar bill. It’s important you don’t hit Refresh or close your browser at this time. There’s no easy way for you to get back to the screen when your results are ready.
  2. When your currency has been generated, you’ll see thumbnails of it where the rainbow square was, like so:

EC Bux Web App – Sheets of Money

  1. Click on the link that says where you can get your currency’s serial numbers. You’ll get to a page like this:

EC Bux Web App – Serial Numbers Page

  1. Save these numbers in a file that you keep in a safe and secure place. These are the numbers you’ll use to verify bux that are traded in later. Don’t freak out – it’s actually not that hard to do the visual verification. But it will get even easier once I complete and release the scan to verify mobile app.
  2. If you like, bookmark the long URL or save it somewhere. It’ll take you to a page where the generated images and the serial numbers text file live.
  3. Click on the thumbnails of the currency sheets to see the full images. Download and print them from your favorite program (Photo Viewer on Windows or Preview on Mac). Make sure to look at the Print Preview to confirm that each printed sheet will have all the (up to five) bills on it. You don’t want the odd bill to overflow on to a second printed page. Normally this should be automatic.
  4. Cut the bills and you’re ready to hand ’em out.

Never been EC’er, right? (Pardon the pun. It’d only work for the Brit’s anyway).

If you do decide to use the webapp, I only have one request: Please be patient and considerate. I don’t expect it to be hit hard, and so multiple simultaneous requests will just slow down the system as a whole. If there’s sufficient interest, I can make the required changes to scale the system and move it behind a load-balancer.

I hope you find this a fun and easy way to promote student engagement and participation. Handing out these EC dollars has saved me a great deal of work unrelated to my primary goal in class. In previous quarters, I used to give out Extra Credit points for in-class participation, and solving special challenge problems I posted from time to time. But many students ended up forgetting about these extra credit opportunities. I kept repeatedly reminding them, but it appears that what they need is simply a constant reminder that’s in their pocket, as it were – a tangible symbol of what’s possible and something that sub-consciously relates to value. A greenback you can touch, feel, smell and caress – YEAH! Virtual extra-credit-points that I track for them in an electronic spreadsheet in the cloud – Yuck! What’s that?

I’m glad to say that so far, the system has worked quite nicely – but yes, this is based on all of two week’s worth of data 🙂 I hope to update with more data as and when the term progresses. Meanwhile I depend on you, dear reader, if you find the site at last moderately useful, to send me suggestions for improvement and bug reports.

Thanks and Enjoy!



Posted in Student Motivation | 3 Comments

This is a test

except it isn’t graded.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment