Monday, January 27, 2014

Celebrating the same old, same old

Students -- like humans -- prefer routine over randomness. This is obvious in elementary school but equally true in the upper grades. For years, I've started each high school lesson with a consistent assignment: students write down a sentence and correct the errors they find. This takes a couple of minutes out of each lesson, but the payoff is clear. Students slowly build the ability to identify errors in their own writing. They feel more confident on standardized exams. They settle down when they enter my classroom and are immediately on task. And I never have to worry about tardy students. As the bell rings, I quickly move around the room and stamp the paper of each student working; the stamp is worth a point on a future quiz. Anyone not working or late to class does not get a stamp, no exceptions. And so it takes about a week for everyone to get the message: when the class starts, we work.

As I read over my previous paragraph, I can see just how boring my lessons must seem. How regimented. But here's what I know: Students love this little routine. Over time, they see how useful it is. They also recognize how I've manipulated them into being "better" students, actually coming to class on time and working right away, but they appreciate it. They laugh about the one or two times they missed a stamp and admit that they appreciate how fair my system ultimately is.

What they don't like is when I break the routine. If they show up to class and there is no sentence to correct, they don't know what to do. The same can be said for every other aspect of class. If an essay is assigned, they know it will be collected on the due date. They know what the penalty will be if it's late. They expect to get feedback in a certain amount of time. Any break in any routine -- even if it benefits them in some way -- is seen as unfair. And for adolescents, the world is judged by how fair it is.

I used to try mixing things up. I thought I'd keep my students on their toes if they didn't know what to expect. If I assigned reading, sometimes there would be a quiz of some sort, sometimes there wouldn't be. When they showed up to class, sometimes there was a sentence to correct, sometimes there wasn't. But with experience, I realized students actually did more work -- and better work -- if they knew exactly what to expect. How will the paper be marked? They want to know, because they want to do a good job. What will be on the test? Tell them, and they'll actually study. It's when they are uncertain that they struggle.