“I need 2 more points, so tell me your favorite science/chemistry joke. All answers will earn 2 points.”
It has become a tradition of mine to make this the last question of the final test in my freshman nursing chemistry class each fall. I have found that many students enter the course afraid of chemistry, so I use an abundance of science jokes (mostly bad puns and memes) throughout to try and make a difficult topic a bit more lighthearted and relatable. This question, then, serves as both a chance to gather new jokes for my collection and as a lighthearted way to give students a small boost as they deal with the stress of all the tests, papers, and projects that come with the final week of a semester.
The first year I did this, I was surprised to find 7 or 8 extremely self-deprecating responses mixed in among the standard jokes I had expected. Several students said that they hoped I would find their test answers funny, since they were certainly not correct. A few even went so far as to say that they themselves felt like a joke due to how much they had struggled in my class.
It was disconcerting to learn right at the end of the semester that 10% of my 75-student class thought of themselves this way. One of my primary goals as a teacher is to make sure every student has all the help and attention they need to succeed. I regularly stick around to answer questions for 30 minutes after class and have made it a habit to reach out to connect with students one on one when they get a low score on a test. Yet here I was at the end of the semester learning that many students had seemingly slipped through the cracks.
Around the same time, I read the book On Christian Teaching by CSR contributor David Smith. Smith discusses the importance of getting to know and care about your students as whole people, not just students in your class. This helped me realize that, while I had invested heavily in helping my students succeed in my class, I had not expressed much interest in their lives outside of it. I had inadvertently made their success the center of our relationship, so it was easy to see how they might view themselves as a failure (or a joke) if they weren’t able to thrive in my course.
In the 3 or 4 years since this discovery, I have started approaching the class a bit differently. In addition to learning students’ names, I make it a point to learn at least one thing about their life outside of class that I can talk to them about. When I meet with students individually after a poor test, I don’t focus our discussion entirely on their grades, and I’m quicker to recommend our campus counseling center if I sense there might be something going on beyond my chemistry class that is impacting their well-being. On the first day of the semester, and every time I hand back a test, I emphasize to students that their value is not derived from their grade in my class. I also use the many parts, one body analogy from I Corinthians 12 to talk about how we all have different strengths and weaknesses, so it’s ok – and actually a good thing – that not everybody is naturally a whiz at chemistry. We all have different gifts, and God’s body of believers, and the world at large, needs more than just chemists to thrive.
But what I have found to be most effective is to be open, honest, and vulnerable with students so they can see that I have struggled too. When talking about different strengths that we all have, I remind them that I might be good at chemistry, but I had a really hard time in philosophy in college, because my analytical brain wants to know the “right” answer and doesn’t do well with deep philosophical questions. When I recommend the counseling center to a student, I share about how it helped me when I went through a difficult time in college. When a student is worried about getting the grade they need for the nursing program, I tell them about the time I narrowly avoided academic probation in my first year of graduate school. Students are often amazed to find out that their professor who seemingly has it all together has had many of the same struggles that they have, and it helps them realize that struggling in one class does not necessarily make them a failure.
Of course, it’s hard to say how effective these approaches have been. Overall student performance in my course has remained steady year over year, and I still get a handful of students saying they hope I will find their test answers funny in response to my request for a joke at the end of each semester. But I have worked hard to create an environment where no student thinks of themselves as a chemistry joke.
Editor’s Addition: Inspired by a similar discovery of how Baylor students’ find their value and worth in other places besides God or question their worth, I am adding this phrase to my syllabus this year: “I want to remind you that your worth and value as a person does not depend upon your grades, or what you, your parents, or friends think of your grades. It depends upon the reality that you are made in God’s image with intrinsic worth.”