“Students don’t do optional!”
(Declaration by colleague at PD session, greeted by laughing affirmation.)
Everyone knows that’s a fact…except it isn’t. I’ve found that students not only DO optional—they come to like it. They like it so much that they complain when it isn’t on the menu. The key, I’ve found, is making optional work a pleasurable experience, as I discovered when I stumbled upon a tactic I’ll call the JFF.
I arrive at my lab/classroom early in the morning, allowing time to poke at my finicky audiovisual system and to assemble the materials needed for the day’s work. As I completed these tasks recently, I wondered how much of the information presented the day before had “stuck.” The fast pace of our A&P classes doesn’t allow much time for reflection and consolidation, so many students simply clear their mental countertops before tackling the next learning challenge. I can almost hear them humming this old favorite from Chad and Jeremy.
On a whim, I grabbed a couple of microscopes and a few models. I assembled a mini-practical exam, focusing on some of the key concepts from the previous day’s work. I didn’t have any clean paper or index cards handy, so I tore some paper towels from a roll and scrawled some questions with a pen from my purse. On the board, I wrote in large letters:
“Check out the back table—Just For Fun”
Then I left.
When I arrived in the classroom later, students were debating the correct answers to my questions and tutoring one another. Several students confessed that the display had startled them because they feared a pop quiz. Some asked me to leave my off-the-cuff project up until after class.
Encouraged by these events, I made another display the next day. This time I simply wrote “JFF’s on the table” on the board. A tradition was born.
Now my students complain if other duties preempt the construction of a display every day. On those occasions, students sometimes resort to creating their own JFF’s for one another. Imagine that!
What has made the JFF’s so successful? I can only guess, but I suspect that they employ several aspects of leaning pleasure:
- Its playful, seat-of-the-pants nature makes it clear that the JFF carries no threat. Look if you like; ignore if you please. I’m not taking names.
- The initial presentation of the JFF was a complete surprise (even to me!). Who doesn’t like a surprise?
- As students explore the display, they realize that mastery of the concepts is an achievable challenge. Who doesn’t love a puzzle?
- Since students can freely discuss the display with one another, the activity helps them to feel like part of a group. Students casually suggest answers to one another. Since I don’t supply a key, the students tend to band together to arrive at correct answers.
- Finally, students realize that the JFF offers something of value. Students who visit the displays are almost guaranteed a better grade on the next lab practical. After all, I have only so many tricks up my sleeve.
How can you do this if you don’t have all my cool toys? Maybe a magazine picture that illustrates a concept in psychology? A math puzzle? An error-fraught bit of prose in English? A historical photograph or document? Just choose something visual that will reinforce the material that you’ve recently covered. Give it a try, and see what happens.