A is for Ambiguous

…and B is for Believable (maybe), C is for Could-this-be-right, and D is for Dunno.  Ah, the multiple choice question, the grim blade separating the triumphant from the disappointed, the admitted from the rejected.  How did we come to base so many important decisions on someone’s bubble-blackening prowess?  College teachers can honestly if somewhat immodestly acknowledge that most of us were standouts in this bizarre sport.  We earned special cords and stoles for our academic regalia, Latin words on our diplomas and degrees, and sometimes $$$ toward the costs of those degrees just by being good at the game.

By contrast, many of our students are not “naturals” with a #2 pencil.  While a few take to the Scan-tron sheet like Michael Phelps to water, more confront the  admonition to “choose the best answer”  feeling as I do when  handed a golf club or a tennis racket: “You know, I am just not very good at this.”  An old sports adage contends that you can’t coach speed.  That may be true, but I’ve found that you can, in fact, coach multiple choice answer selection.  We just need to let our students in on some of the secret strategies of test-taking which we mastered easily and intuitively.  Long after my students have forgotten the 12 cranial  nerves (sigh), they will remember how to beat a test question into submission.  In the long run, that may prove to be one of the most important things that I have taught them, as it grants them admission to desired programs and helps them to succeed once admitted.

A host of resources are available to help students sharpen their test-taking skills.  My college’s GEN 102 includes material on test-takings skills, and most colleges offer a similar course.  Academic services at many colleges offer individualized coaching.  Books and websites offering assistance abound.  But, like the miracle potions in my cosmetic cabinet, the treatments only work when opened and applied, and therein lies the problem.  A student already paddling madly to keep her head above water has no time, energy, or desire to practice test strategies.  A potential solution: embed skills practice in our regular classes.

When I interrupt a lecture to display a multiple choice question and invite responses, I enhance students’ learning pleasure in several ways.

  • First, the question comes as a mild surprise and focuses their attention on the material, moving them from passive to active learning.
  • Second, if one of the potential choices is funny, they get a pleasant little dose of humor.  This works especially well when the tickler option involves a class’s insider jokes…those little stories and silly moments that creep into every class if we allow them…thereby enhancing the sense of belonging to the group. Best of all, the tactic allows every student to feel the pleasure of meeting an achievable challenge and owning a skill that is of value.

I am exploring new ways to use this strategy.  After displaying a question, I will often ask “Who can tell me one of the options that is wrong?”  Less confident students may not wish to risk offering a correct response, but almost everyone can choose at least one blatantly wrong answer.  After the incorrect response is indicated, I can ask, “Can someone tell me why it’s wrong?” More discussion and, I hope, learning.  I typically use a marker on the white board to “X” the discarded response, modeling a behavior that I hope they can mimic on their own tests later.  We continue in the same fashion, sometimes marking potentially correct options with a “?”,  until we arrive at the best answer, which I mark with a big star.The real payoff comes when I ask “How did we get to the right answer?”  We trace the application of the strategies that we have been learning.

  • If two answers are directly contradictory, one of them is probably right.
  •  Treat each option as a true/false question.
  • Beware the dread double negative.
  • Take a good look at the longest question or the one with the most qualifiers.  Since teachers don’t like to be challenged, we often try to close our own loopholes, rendering the correct response longer.

The last tip is known in all my classes as “Pedro’s Rule” in honor of a delightful student I had many terms ago.  I had flashed a particularly gnarly question, and Pedro’s hand shot up before anyone else had read, much less digested, the question.  After he answered correctly, I asked how he had responded so quickly.  His reply; “It was the longest one!” Since I have shared his tactic with subsequent classes, Pedro’s Rule and its occasional exceptions have become part of our class culture.

I have also offered out-of-class sessions on multiple choice strategies.  These sessions offer a chance to focus on more of the subtleties required to unravel challenging questions.  A great source for structuring a program like this is available at Brigham Young University’s Counseling and Career site.  For a list of great tips, click here. The site also supplies a list of entertaining practice tests on a variety of interesting topics, including Dating, Fashion, Harry Potter, and tarantulas. You can access these by clicking here. (Warning: These tests are addictive to multiple choice nerds!) Each question within these tests allows the learner to practice the strategies outlined on the first page and coaches them to the correct response.

Happy bubbling!—Karen


No Joy in Muddville

Tropical storm Debby continues to render The Sunshine State decidedly un-sunny, so this morning I spent a little extra time surfing the net with a second cup of coffee. After surveying “Nine Workout Mistakes Women Make” (OK, I’ll plead guilty to 3…4 tops) and being warned that “Swine Flu 15 Times Deadlier Than Thought,” I was ready for a bit of sunshine in more ways than one. So when MSN’s rolling banner feature included “The Worst Gigs for Career Satisfaction” accompanied by a photo of a woman pointing toward a whiteboard with “Homework” written on it, I thought “Uh-oh.”  Surely this is a mistake.  Could I be in an unhappy profession and not even know it?

According to Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes magazine, teaching is indeed among the 5 most miserable careers, coasting in at #3, to be exact, right behind “Program Manager” and “Product Manager” (tied for 5th) and “Sales Engineer.”  I admit that I have only a dim idea of what people in those slots actually do. The bad news just kept coming. “Registered Nurse” took second place, with only “Security Officer” being a less happy job.  Could it be that I, a delusionally happy teacher of anatomy & physiology, am preparing legions of innocents to be even less happy?  And I write pleasureinlearning about the experience?  Wow.  My husband and I often discuss our thoughts on worst jobs ever.  I usually list “coal miner,” although a recent flight filled me with sympathy for the young woman standing by the sandwich/salad wall on the airport concourse without a book to read. My husband thinks our beloved pastor has the worst job, combining his own dread of public speaking with endless expectations to satisfy the impossible-to-please. (She is an ace at both, I might add.)

We’ve all been to gatherings where the host or hostess just didn’t seem to be in the party mood.  Those parties encourage us to leave early, feeling deflated by the experience.  Are we guilty of “hosting” learning experiences where our “guests” feel unwelcome and wish that they could leave early?  I think about some of my earlier days in the classroom and my disappointment when students bolted at the first opportunity.  Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to happen very often any more, and, when it does, students often stop to offer an apology involving children to be picked up or other pressing matters. What has changed?

Honestly, I think that as I’ve focused on making learning a more pleasurable experience for my students, I have found more pleasure in teaching.  When I attend a stimulating conference or PD session, I can hardly wait to try out the new technique or tool. When I find a great clip that can both entertain and instruct my students, I am eager to show it. Call it karma, call it synergy, call it self-preservation…when I find a good way to share good ideas, teaching does not feel like an unhappy place to be.

Quoting Heidi Golledge of CareerBliss.com, who compiled the data for the original study of unhappy jobs, Smith writes:

“CareerBliss has found through our research that teachers appear to be quite happy with their work and their coworkers.  However, the rewards for their work, lack of support, and lack of opportunities to be promoted counteract many of the good parts of the job,” Golledge says. “Nurses, on the other hand, have more issues with the culture of their workplaces, the people they work with, and the person they work for.  The factors driving the unhappiness tell different stories for these two jobs.”

The negative aspects of a teaching career are real and pose problems not easily solved.  They reflect the values of both academia and the culture as a whole.  However, one positive aspect of teaching at the college level is the relative degree of autonomy that it affords.  I can, to a great degree, determine the climate of my classroom. I am fortunate to work at an institution where faculty support is a given, and, for me, the opportunity for advancement is not a priority. This I believe: the more skillful I become at leveraging pleasure to help my students learn, the happier I will be.


Pleasureinlearining is devoted to making teaching college a happier experience for instructors and their students.  What are your thoughts about teaching as an unhappy profession?

Autonomy: Another Kind of Pleasure?

After reading a review of Michael Pantalon’s book Instant Influence at Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog, I was possessed yet again by the evil Amazon Fairy and ordered the book. (OK, I ordered several books…the UPS truck was already polluting the air, so why not?)  When I pulled it from the box, my first thought was, honestly, “Uh-oh.”  Everything about the cover screamed “Cheesily sensational psychobabble!”  But I recalled something about books and covers and headed off to the beach with the book in tow.

The cover promises a lot: “How to Get Anyone to Do Anything—FAST.” The back flap touts Dr. Pantalon’s impressive credentials, including his faculty position at the Yale School of Medicine.  Since I have a medical background myself, and since I have only eight weeks to teach my students a semester’s worth of anatomy and physiology, I thought I should hear what Dr. P had to say, which turns out to be both entertaining and helpful.

The bottom line: autonomy is precious.  We don’t like being told what to do (think of your response to a particularly irritating demand from administration).  We don’t like being told why someone else thinks we should do something (picture your response to parental nagging during adolescence.)  This much we knew.  As a pediatrician, I often reminded frustrated parents that you can’t make another person, even a very tiny person, eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom.

What I didn’t know is that being paid for something may actually make me less likely to do it.  Or that promising to do something…being 100% sure that I would do it…may put me in the same boat as the person who is 100% sure that she won’t do the same thing.  I won’t spoil the book by telling you more. Dr. P does provide plenty of evidence to support his conclusions, and a step-by-step approach to putting his ideas into action.

So do we need to add a 7th item to our list of pleasures that can be leveraged to enhance learning?  Rather sheepishly, I recalled all my pep talks to students, admonishing them to work harder, to be more careful in their written work, to strive for excellence.  I considered the thinly veiled threats contained in my syllabi. I thought about the alleged remediation, so rarely effective, that I offered struggling students.  And I started to wonder if I might do better.

Just for fun, a friend and I worked through the steps of Instant Influence in a scenario involving her husband and his cell phone. The gentleman refuses to leave his phone on except when he is making a call because he believes that the battery will run down instantly.  This makes my friend crazy, but her pleading “What if I really need to reach you?” and her logical lessons on cell phone function have been ineffective.  How could we leverage his sense of autonomy to get him to leave the phone on?  I’ll spare you the transcript of that conversation, but it was an interesting exercise.

My favorite passage from my favorite book, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, describes her parents’ reaction, really a nonreaction, to her finally finding an amoeba under the microscope in her basement lab: “She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life….My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.” (From An American Childhood, Annie Dillard, Harper Perennial, 1988).

Our students’ lives are their own.  How do we remember this?  How do we use this knowledge?


Does the idea of acknowledging students’ autonomy rub you the wrong way?  Does leveraging their sense of autonomy strike you as manipulative?  Tell us what you think.

Clever Clip(s)

The thread of storytelling (thanks again to Andy Goodman!) runs through this week’s posts.  To call the following clips “clever” seems inappropriate, since they tell some very personal and emotional stories.  My A&P I students learn about the senses during the very last days of class, when they are tired, their minds are full like overstuffed suitcases, and their other classes’ deadlines are screaming for their attention.  As the “eighteenth fairway syndrome” kicks in, I try to persuade them that this last material is important to them and their future patients.

Here, a woman hears for the first time:

A truly charming gentleman sees his family:

This one is longer, but I do love hearing Lisa talk about discovering color and finally seeing a squirrel:

I have learned that when I show these, I had better have a good supply of tissues.  After seeing these, my students are ready to learn about hearing and vision.  I imagine that these clips could also be used in the behavioral sciences to illustrate the importance of sensory information or in writing classes as prompts to encourage students to imagine what these experiences would be like for themselves.   —Karen

Do you have favorite “clever clips” that you use in your teaching?  We would really like to see them and to hear about your experiences with video in the classroom.

Gonna Soak Up the Sun

An old lady, garbed in ill-considered swimwear, ambles down the beach, searching for sea glass.  Had you been watching me, that’s how you might have described me, and you’d be right….partially.  While I was moseying, the hamster on the wheel that is my brain was galloping furiously.  “Hmmm….that cut on my shin (long story) might still be bleeding a little.  If some red blood cells spill out into the ocean, will they A) swell…B) shrink…C) scream for help?  And what is the proper name for that phenomenon?  And what were the steps that my body took to stop the bleeding?”

So off we go!  The ideas just kept coming:

  • I’m getting quite a tan!  Why are the melanocytes in my skin frantically hoisting their tiny umbrellas?  What layer of the epidermis do they live in?  What is the ABCD rule for identifying melanoma?  How is this sunshine making me wrinkly?  How does it help my bones? In what class of molecules is Vitamin D?
  • I have nice footprints…no, really, I do.  Why are they skinny in the middle?  Why do we have arches in our feet?  How many are there?  What is the proper name for the big toe?
  • I’m getting thirsty.  What would happen if I drank sea water?  Why doesn’t the blood in my feet get salty as I walk in the surf?  How does my skin keep the water out of my lower limb tissue, but let the sweat out of my neck and forehead?

Then I began to imagine what different colleagues might find to muse about if they accompanied me on the same walk:

  • Scott, my physics and astronomy buddy, might think about the waves and their motion, the light refraction that makes the sky and the water such a beautiful blue.  He might explain to me how the moon causes the tides. How do those pelicans get enough lift to stay aloft?
  • Thomas, the historian, could tell me about the Plate Fleet that sank just offshore in 1715, scattering treasure intended to provide King Philip V of Spain  with the astonishing list of jewels required by Elizabeth Farnese, Duchess of Parma, to complete her dowry before consummating their marriage. That stuff is still washing up around here, but I never find any.  Who were the Ai Indians, and what happened to them?
  • Derek, explainer of all things zoological and especially ichthyological, could tell me what these fish are, how the sharks can detect my blood in the water, and what all these pelicans are after.  Oh, and how is it that the turtles that are nesting on the beach right now find their way back to their own birthplace after navigating the world’s oceans?
  • Pat, what are algorithm patterns that form the shells and pack the grains of sand?  How do I convert the temperature from Fahrenheit to centigrade?
  • Dan, maker of music, what composers have been inspired by the sea?  What’s your favorite sea chanty?  Do you play any beach or ocean songs?
  • Kristen, computer goddess, what kinds of spreadsheets could I make from my beach-combing strolls?  Numbers of shells? Types of swimsuits? Could I make a brochure for my new business as a sea glass hunting guide? (And, really, can you believe I actually posted and linked any of this?  Thanks, Friend!)

If we love what we do and what we teach, almost any day can provide a sand bucketful of ideas for illustrations and problems that we can use in our classes.  At a recent conference, I enjoyed hearing Andy Goodman talk about the power of stories in engaging people.  Too often we think that the story must be a novel, but I believe that even a small vignette from our own experiences can draw our students into the worlds that we love.


Do you find inspiration for discussions or problems for your classes in ordinary moments?  Please share!

Cool Tool of the Week: Blabberize

If you would like an attention-getter to introduce your class or to pose a question to keep the discussion going, check out Blabberize.  Here’s a sample blabber I made for A&P.

You can blabberize virtually anyone or anything.  My pal Julep offered to help Anne with psychology class:

One more for my math pals:

Most web resources focus on blabbing for younger students, but college students will also enjoy a little humorous surprise.  Happy blabbing!

Have you used blabbers in your classes?  We would love to hear about them, or better yet, see them.  Please share.

Are We There Yet?

Are we getting the point(s) across?  We have no shortage of tools to help us answer that question, and some important people, often the ones who pay us, urge us to show them that we have.  Nationally-normed tests, departmental exams, artifacts for accreditation: we have a mountain of data to evaluate, and we spend a lot of time mining that mountain for the treasures hidden in those facts.  Like you, I use that information to help me modify my teaching and to remind myself that I am not there yet.

Still, numbers aren’t everything. (Sorry, Pat!  I will concede that they are almost everything.) After teaching for several terms, I began to notice a certain sameness in the stories that students were telling me before class and at break, often with laughter and surprise.  These student observations are now woven into my classes as part of our culture and have become part of the pleasure in learning anatomy & physiology. The top 3:

  • “Oh my gosh, Dr. D!  I am dreaming about this stuff!”  Sometimes a complaint, but more often delivered with a chuckle, the dream story appears at some point in every class.  My psychology pal Anne tells me that dream theory is complicated and uncertain stuff, but dreaming seems to allow our brains to synthesize experiences and to solidify memories.  When students start dreaming, I know that I’m offering something to dream about.
  •  “My kid’s teacher asked me ‘Where is she learning this stuff?'” Many of my students have preschool and elementary age children who get a kick out of helping Mom learn her bones.  Since the children are little info-sponges, they often absorb the material faster than their parents.  “Mom, how many times have we been over this? Focus!” was what one student heard from her 7-year-old.  When a four year old proudly displays her cranium, clavicle, and femur at show-and-tell, people take note.
  • “My friends and family are begging me to stop talking about this stuff!”  Are you listening, Dr. Bloom?  My students have moved from merely knowing the goods to making connections and applications.  They watch sports and analyze the injuries.  They watch the news and discuss the accidents and celebrity illnesses.  They go out to eat and talk about molecules and digestion.  They tell their buddies why their noses are running in cold weather. Their comrades are sick of it!

Amusing, but is this really part of pleasure in learning? I think so.  When students offer one of these gems, as they do in every class, I ask permission to share with the group (although the student usually has already broadcast their bit), and wait for others to share their similar experiences.  People realize that they belong to a group.  We enjoy the humor in the stories.  I point to the stories as proof that they are making progress toward achieving the challenge.

For a while, I told students to expect these experiences and asked that they report them as they occurred.  Now, I wait until they appear naturally and let students enjoy the surprise. Each class feels that they are discovering a new phenomenon.  Every time, I enjoy their amazement with them.


Have your students brought you stories that prove to you that they are learning?  Are some of the themes of these stories recurrent?  We hope that you will share with us.

If you have a junior anatomist at your house, visit eskeletons from the University of Texas at Austin.  The “Activities/Teaching Resources” drop-down menu features a printable life-sized skeleton of a 6-year-old child…a fabulous rainy day activity or science project.