Quirrell Points as a Pedagogical Tool?
As I mentioned in Monday’s Pop Quiz, I’ve lately been reading Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s epic fanfic “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” in which the author depicts a very interesting pedagogical tool. Very, very minor plot spoilers follow. Stop now if you want to be a total blank slate.
So, in Yudkowsky’s alternate HP universe, Harry comes to develop a mentor-friendship with a significantly more interesting version of Professor Quirrell, who, rather than a twitchy milquetoast with a bad parasite, seems to have turned out to be an innovative and truly inspiring educator.* One of the things I found particularly striking about Quirrell’s method is the institution of his own point system to reward and punish students, which runs in parallel to the familiar system of House Points depicted by J.K. Rowling in the source canon.
Quirrell Points are awarded to individual students for engaging in desired behaviours (successful spellcasting, answering questions, etc), and occasionally subtracted when students engage in undesirable behaviours (breaking decorum, failing a demonstration). Quirrell points can be (apparently) converted into house points, but their far more interesting use is to purchase privileges, such as the ability to reschedule something or meet privately with the professor.
Difficulties in keeping up with the running tally aside, this system seems quite reasonable as a means of shaping student behaviour in desirable ways. Since none of us teach at Hogwarts, I’ll propose here a version of the system adapted to non-magical classrooms. For lack of a better term, let’s call the points in this system “prof-points” to distinguish it from Yudkowski’s system as it appears in his story.
Possible means of acquiring prof-points could include:
Attendance (either for each class or certain days), turning in work on time, earning a high mark on a test or assignment, correctly answering a question in class, volunteering for a demonstration, participating in or leading discussion, being insightful, taking on special projects, doing the teacher a favour, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, not being annoying.
Prof-points might be deducted for things like:
Absences, tardiness, late work, being disruptive, facebooking/texting in class, asking questions about an assignment that are clearly answered in the first sentence of the directions, falling asleep, wearing white pants after Labour Day, being annoying.
Lastly, prof-points might be spent on the following privileges:
Extensions on assignment due dates (advance notice would make this cheaper than the late penalty), emailing the teacher about non-emergency topics, the privilege not to be called on for a day, dropping a low mark from the average, the ability to bring a crib sheet to a test (in disciplines where this is not considered beyond the pale), the ability to pick project partners, the ability to bid for more desirable presentation dates, conversion to extra credit, candy, lunch with the teacher (or is this a punishment?), a snazzy t-shirt, lime green crocs.
Students might conceivably start out the term with a couple of points to spend on minor things like emails, but they would quickly find it necessary to accumulate a few more points on their own. The ultimate goal would, of course, be to build up enough points to purchase some of the more expensive special favours from the list helpfully included in the syllabus.**
Ideally point values for various rewards, punishments, and favours would be balanced such that students fulfilling all course requirements (without any extras) could earn enough prof-points by the end of term to purchase one nice favour (e.g. extension on a final project or dropping a low mark on an assignment). Students who don’t need a favour could cash them in for bit of extra credit.
One likely benefit of the system that seems immediately obvious to me is its potential to motivate students to participate in discussion in larger classes where they might otherwise be tempted to retreat into anonymity. The potential to turn prof-points into either extra credit or special favours seems like a much better carrot than the usual nebulous “participation grade.” Plus, because points are earned on the fly for good work rather than awarded at the end of the term out of a predetermined total, there is always potential to earn more points. The system is also relatively fair in so far as it rewards both performance and conscientiousness, leaving out no one but those who choose not to engage with the class at all (late/missing work, doesn’t participate in class, doesn’t show up).
A side benefit would be the frequent association of faces with names on the class list, possibly helping earlier in the term with name memorisation. Of course, the real elephant in the room is keeping the point tally: the teacher (or perhaps an unfortunate TA) would essentially always need to have a list handy in order to record point changes awarded during class. This could be a significant distraction, although perhaps not an insurmountable one if the tally were formatted in a way that enabled quick addition and subtraction of points without much effort, perhaps even with a tablet app.
I am actually seriously considering implementing some form of this system (perhaps greatly simplified) in the next class I teach in order to test its effectiveness. If anyone else has any thoughts (or even experience) with systems of this kind be sure to leave a comment! But please keep it to prof-points/Quirrell points: no spoilers for the story!
*At least as of Chapter 26. Don’t tell me what happens!
**Asking the professor to replace a lost syllabus would, of course, cost several points.