What’s fun for profs is not fun for all


I want to share a quick story about something slightly stupid that I did some years ago, while teaching.

I was teaching an introductory organismal biology course (a “march of the phyla“), and I was teaching with relatively high-stakes midterm exams, each worth probably 20-25% of the grade. For a bit of fun, I decided to add a few extra-credit questions at the end. I would have accepted any ol’ answer on these questions, but I wanted to give students a chance to have fun and engage with the material in a more lighthearted way. I don’t recall much about it, as it was quite a while ago, but one question was something like, “Name a song that has an invertebrate in the title.”

Fun, right?

No, it wasn’t.

While some students could bust one out right away, some others just didn’t think of one offhand. One of the students came up to me during the exam to let me know they were worried that they wouldn’t get the points, and if they knew they needed to know this, they would have prepared. So, to fix this, I told the course that everybody would be getting full credit for the extra credit questions and they didn’t have to fill them out, or they could put in whatever they wanted and I’d give them credit. Or something like that.

So here’s what I learned:  Just because I thought it was fun, that doesn’t mean students will think it’s fun. Screwing around with how to earn points on exams, for things that are not part of the curriculum, is not funny business to students.

It wasn’t real extra credit anyway, it was merely just spreadsheet voodoo. But to students, it was just something that made the test longer and took their time away from things that really mattered. I should have known better.

I think being whimsy and silliness is fine, and often wonderful. But potentially denying students free points on a midterm because they can’t provide a correct answer to a whimsical question is the opposite of wonderful.

I might have silly assignments, but I’ve found that having silly questions on exams is off-putting or confusing for some fraction of the students, and interferes with their performance. So yeah, nowadays, I’m one of those guys with boring and sincere test questions.


(By the way, later this week I’m starting on what will be about 2.5 weeks of genuine vacation, in which time I won’t be focused on work, nor on this site. I’ll have a couple posts scheduled for while I’m gone, but things will be slow here for a while. So now you know.

Leave a Reply