Please Don’t Trick Your Students

It’s April Fool’s Day, so let’s talk about tricks teachers play on students.

You know the kind.

The teacher who writes a whole exam of too-difficult questions only to put in the middle of the instructions that to pass the exam, simply hand it in blank. The ones who bury an important policy in the syllabus to check who read the syllabus.

We’ve all heard the stories, of course. And that’s what they should remain: stories.

These tales are, literally, legends that speak to our deep anxieties about the unequal power relationships in the classroom. They’re often triumphant or humorous precisely because they’re addressing that anxiety.

Your job as a teacher isn’t to increase or foment this anxiety. It’s to alleviate it in any way you can.

Three red apples on a gray wood surface
Oh look the teaching apples are back!

This is not to say that there aren’t ways to check for reading directions, nor that you shouldn’t do things to make such things fun. You just shouldn’t punish students for doing the things that they’ve been trained, through years of schooling conventions, to do automatically in response to the power difference in the classroom.

Back when I gave midterm and final exams, I understood the role of the exams in my composition classes to be to help train students for writing exams in other classes later. We talked about testing strategies and I’d often even have the students help write the questions in class as a review session.

With those legends of tricky teachers rattling around in my head, I did do some small tricks, but I maintain that they were in the spirit I’m endorsing here: helping students rather than punishing them.

In my instructions (sometimes for the midterm, sometimes for the final), I would include “for X additional points, draw a cat at the end of the exam.” Most semesters I would get about 1/3 of exams back with cats. Obviously, I changed up the instructions a little bit from semester to semester so that I didn’t get a reputation that would ruin the goal: rewarding students for reading exam instructions carefully, which was one of the exam skills we would address in study sessions.

This was my favorite part of the exams; I loved the creativity students brought to the cat drawings. It helped me grade their work faster, because I was motivated to see the next cat. I think some students genuinely appreciated the levity of it. To this day, one of my favorite ones was from a student who drew a dog and wrote “I refuse.” That student still got the bonus points—they demonstrated that they understood the purpose of the task and had mastered the skill that I was trying to teach, so why shouldn’t I reward it? Besides, it made me smile, so there’s gotta be some value in reaching your audience in an affective way.

But I argue this isn’t the same as the tricks the legends tell. Why? Because the exam was passable if the students were on autopilot. It was a reward for demonstrating a skill we had addressed in class, but it didn’t punish the students who were so focused on the content that they missed that clause in the instructions (or who simply forgot to draw the cat when they finished, which happens). In short, it wasn’t an abuse of my power as teacher, as many of the actions in the legends would be.

silver tabby cat with blue eyes watching you. Black background.
Pranks should be positive and uplifting, not mean and bullying. This cat is watching you. Don’t disappoint it. (not my cat)

We need to be mindful, as teachers, that we are authority figures in the classroom. Whether we want to be or not, no matter what work we do to build a more equitable community in the classroom, we hold power over our students. They come to us having been trained that the instructor is an absolute monarch in the classroom, equipped with the fear and awe (and possibly subversion) that such a power difference inspires.

Playing pranks works best when they’re either positive pranks (decorating a coworker’s desk with something you know they like to surprise her) or work against the power dynamic (I would not be upset about a cohort of students deciding to prank a teacher by, say, collectively showing up 5 minutes late, or all sitting in different places—that shows organization on their part, which is a display of power by the less empowered body, a reminder that the systemic power is only in part because of the consent of the governed). There’s a guideline in comedy that you shouldn’t “punch down”: that is, a joke isn’t funny if you’re making fun of people who have less power. That’s just bullying.

For April Fools, the guideline is similar: confuse, don’t abuse.

Abuse is inherent in tricks that take advantage of power differentials. Something that might otherwise be consensual or ok become abusive when it’s initiated by a party that holds significantly more power than the other. People in positions of power, such as teachers in classrooms, need to be mindful of the ethical obligations that power confers.

Those legends about students overcoming teacher tricks are, at their core, legends about students gaming the system and seizing power in the face of a tyrannical teacher. They should not be inspiration for teachers to use when implementing their own classroom policies.

Please don’t trick your students.

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