Lower the stakes 2.0: some anecdotal evidence to end the semester

A while back I wrote about the pedagogical, and ethical, value of lowering the stakes for students in routine assignments such as essays. My discussion in that case was relatively theoretical; primarily, it focused on the research of José Antonio Bowen. Yesterday, however, I gathered some terrific anecdotal evidence about how the small gestures we make in the classroom to “raise the bar” by “lowering the stakes” really do have qualitatively significant outcomes for students.

This week marks the end of the teaching year at Queen Mary Drama. To cap the semester, my final-year students in “Shakespeare After Shakespeare” presented work toward their final essays; their presentations are a formal assessment, and are worth 20% of their grade in the class. From the beginning of the semester I emphasised to them that these presentations were designed to share initial work on those essays, and that the best presentations would not provide fully thought-through work, but rather initial claims, initial research questions, and good questions for the class to prompt both discussion and helpful feedback. (In other words, I aimed to make the presentations part of a surreptitious “do-over” exercise, not unlike the one I discuss in the post I link to above). Two weeks ago, we did practice group presentations in class; these were created in just fifteen minutes and were not marked. I billed them as a chance to get some feedback on presentation style, and I talked about how many undergraduate students present their work poorly because they haven’t thought much about, or had much direct feedback on, the importance of clarity, pacing, and confidence in oral presentations. (I’ve written about this issue on the blog in the past too; check out this post.) Then, last week, the first wave of students presented; yesterday, we ended our work together with a marathon session of twelve (twelve!) presentations.

Do-over or not, practice or none, I knew the students would be nervous sharing their work, and I knew they’d also be apprehensive yet excited about the arrival of the semester’s end (for quite a few, this was to be their last undergraduate class ever). I also knew we’d be rushed to fit in all the remaining presenters in a two-hour class. In response to this mixed context, I set to work on lowering the stakes further, and upping the enjoyment quotient as far as possible. I moved us out of our usual, rather oppressively institutional room in a nearby mixed-use humanities building, and into one of our department’s familiar spaces, Rehearsal Room One. I booked an extra half hour in the space, knowing we were likely going to need it, and I warned the students in advance that we’d probably run overtime (and that they were free to leave at the regular end of lesson if necessary). I baked a cake (which actually turned out quite well!) and arrived early to make two caffetieres of coffee, laying everything out at a dedicated refreshment table in the space. We started with a few very brief announcements, and with my encouragement to get up and get coffee, cake, or go to the bathroom as needed, because the race to the finish was about to begin.

The students each presented for only five minutes. (As my colleague [and excellent teacher] Catherine Silverstone told me when I began at QM, five minutes is more than enough time for an undergraduate presentation: any longer and the students over-prepare and over-fret, with outcomes diminishing proportionally.) Following their formal talk, they conducted a five-minute feedback chat with their peers and me, based on questions they had prepared for us in advance. I timed everyone rigorously, but very few ran over; similarly, I participated in the feedback discussions, but tried my best to let the students lead them. Overall, I worked to foster a low-key, low-stress environment in which everyone would feel comfortable sharing their half-formed ideas, knowing that half-formed was exactly what was expected – along, of course, with openness to moving in new directions based on feedback.

My subjective impression is that my strategies, taken together, had the desired effect: the students gave some really strong performances. Compared to past presentations of this kind, these were generally really well paced, and many students spoke with impressive confidence. A few whom I feared would cower did not; in fact, their work was among the best in the bunch! Everyone seemed a bit nervous, but most seemed quite comfortable on balance in front of me and their peers. And, to my great glee, a few included hilarious yet pertinent Keynotes and Prezis, making their serious subject matter both interesting and fun.

Those were my impressions; imagine my delight, then, when two of the students approached me after class to let me know how much they appreciated my efforts to “lower the stakes” (their own words!) for the presentation assignment. They commented on how my change in the tone of the task allowed them to see its real point: to talk with peers about what they were working on, share ideas, and get feedback they could chew on, work out, and then maybe (or perhaps not) use, as they saw fit. They mentioned that they had had other presentation experiences where the atmosphere was different and these outcomes did not result; while they didn’t elaborate, I can guess that they were referring to presentations that felt more like “test” than “test-out-your-ideas”. While of course there’s an important place for the former in university – after all, performing under pressure is a very big part of professional labour in the so-called “real world”, including in the world of professional theatre – I think the latter needs to predominate in most learning environments. For one thing, it’s an important precursor to the higher-stakes presentation: it’s where you learn to find your voice, own your space, and present your ideas with confidence. For another, it’s simply more collegial: why teach students that great ideas emerge from our brains fully formed, when the truth is the best intellectual work is always collaborative, and always evolving? I hope this is exactly what our presentation task taught my great group of finalists; I certainly learned more about the benefits of lowering the stakes from watching them present their work over these past two weeks.

Plus, we ate some pretty damn nice cake!


(Parsnip cinnamon cake, from Abel&Cole. Click here for the recipe.)

Happy spring break, everyone!


3 thoughts on “Lower the stakes 2.0: some anecdotal evidence to end the semester

  1. I don’t think you lowered the stakes but presented an environment of calm achievement. Sometimes, especially spanking new ones, need a space to breathe in. Often the idea is mistranslated and misused to allow insignificant work. You proved otherwise. Bravo.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply, Celeste. It’s a useful reminder that there is a lot of common ground between lowering the stakes, as a pedagogical strategy, and simply making students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom environment, which is not only good teaching practice but also basic human decency. Looking back with your comment in mind, I’d say I did both in this instance, and likely the good outcomes I noted are a result of both: framing the presentation as a testing ground, rather than as a place to perform ready made expertise, lowered the stakes; then, the ‘practice’ session, the familiar room, cake and coffee, and other environmental factors fostered an atmosphere in which sharing ideas and practicing arguments made sense and felt safe.

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