by Adam Boxer
My degree is in chemistry, and at university we used to spend a lot of time in the lab. Before starting an experiment, we had to research every substance we were using and complete a risk assessment, noting whether the substance was corrosive or flammable or harmful to aquatic life or whatever. We would then queue up to show our risk assessment to one of the demonstrators who would sign it and send us to the lab benches to start working.
I remember on one occasion the queue seemed to be moving a lot slower than usual. Trying to look ahead, I saw student after student have a brief conversation with the demonstrator, and then be directed away from the workbenches rather than towards them as usual. Most of the students were shaking their heads in what looked like frustration. I definitely heard a mumbled “f***’s sake” or two. When I got to the front, I showed the demonstrator my risk assessment as I always did. He had a quick look through it and simply asked me “what is a lachrymator?”
At that point, I realised what the issue was. We were using a certain substance that day (I don’t recall which) and on its online data sheet it said “lachrymator” as an associated hazard. Of course, I had dutifully copied this onto my risk assessment, but had no idea what it meant. I wasn’t alone — out of the 70 odd students doing that experiment, none of us knew what a lachrymator was.
F***’s sake, what is a lachrymator?
This is not just a semi-amusing anecdote about a lazy and disaffected student who couldn’t be bothered to put the work in. My peers and I weren’t lazy or disaffected; quite the opposite. We were all highly committed to our studies and motivated to succeed. But, on this occasion, we had clearly fallen short of the standard expected of us. For me, The Tale of the Lachrymator has become emblematic of a common occurrence in my personal and professional life: when a student wants to achieve the achievable, but fails regardless.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about homework; both because of the pandemic and because of my role in Carousel. I think The Lachrymator has something important to tell us about homework and the way we set it. Ultimately, in the university case the demonstrator said go away and come back when you know what a lachrymator is. So we went away, searched it on our phones, and came back two minutes later knowing that it is a substance which causes eye irritation and tears.
The classroom is not so straightforward
If I have told my students to learn “these fifteen things” for next week, and they come to the lesson not having learnt “these fifteen things,” I can’t just send them off somewhere to learn it in a couple of minutes because the brain doesn’t work like that (and nor does safeguarding). Instead, it is a source of intense frustration as I often have to push off my lesson plan, deliver a stern lecture and often adapt on the spot to a circumstance I assumed would not occur.
It’s again worth reiterating that I am not talking here about students who are lazy or unmotivated. I’m talking about students who did the homework and generally meant to do it well, but still my intent or expectation when I set the homework wasn’t met.
Breaking this down, I think we have three reasons students like this don’t do homework in the way you wanted them to:
● It wasn’t clear to them what your desired outcome was (e.g. to know what the word “lachrymator” means
● They aren’t generally held to account for their performance in reaching that outcome (e.g. the lachrymator incident happened two years into my course, and nobody had ever asked a similar question to me)
● When things haven’t worked out in the past, you focused on other people and things that are hard to change (e.g. student willpower — their will to do the homework correctly)
I think there are a few simple strategies we can therefore try which lower the chances of these students turning up having technically done the work, but not achieved the intended outcome.
Some of them might seem obvious, but they haven’t always been to me and they may prove helpful:
● Make that outcome explicit: I have found that students often don’t really realise why you are setting homework, especially if you set a lot of different types (e.g. free revision, completing work from class, projects, videos etc). A script like the main thing isn’t for you to have done the quiz. It’s to learn the stuff…the quiz is the way you show me and yourself that you have learnt the stuff…can help a lot here.
● Hold students to account: there are lots of different ways to do this, and in future blogs I will share some concrete strategies, but let’s just think back to The Lachrymator for a second. The demonstrator could have just told me what a lachrymator is, but this would have had nowhere near the same effect as the way he actually held me to account. Even our best students are the same: if we let them take the easy route and don’t hold them properly to account then you are just asking for repeat incidents.
●Look in the mirror: this is a phrase we have at my school which broadly means “if something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go, what can you do next time to increase the chances of it going the way you do want it to go?” It’s very easy to blame the students or the school culture around homework or whatever, but it won’t actually help. You need to identify concrete actions which you can undertake and improve your chances second time around.
I’ve written here before about the many problems surrounding homework engagement and completion, and I hope this blog has given you a couple of things to think about. As I mentioned earlier, in time I am going to post more articles focusing on specific actions you can undertake to help you get better outcomes from your students. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to think about something called a culture of retrieval. For more on that, though, you will have to wait for the next blog. Stay tuned!
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