When I started teaching legal research in 2006, I found many students appeared afraid to answer questions, which was perhaps unsurprising considering the ravages of the Socratic Method on the First Year psyche. Considering their wide eyed terror, throwing out even the most innocuous softball felt a bit sadistic. I don’t recall what strategies I tried to overcome student fear that first year, but the following year I introduced what I refer to as “the goofy prize box” in an attempt to break the ice, lower the stress level, and encourage student class participation.
On the first day of class, I announce that any student who volunteers to answer a question will get a goofy prize from the goofy prize box. Usually the giggling starts immediately, and by the time the first answerer is presented with a choice of two ridiculously useless and silly prizes, the giggling has morphed into laughter as the student makes her selection, often with comments and suggestions from the rest of the class. To get an idea on the scale of the goofiness, my recently restocked box currently contains a self-made origami box (with a lid!), a dollar bill, a slappy hand, an old headphone container (sans headphones), and a rubber ducky. Recently awarded prizes include a teabag, a collection of law librarian temporary tattoos, and a miniature can of SpaghettiOs.
I usually ask a couple of questions at the beginning of class throughout the semester. In my humble opinion, the box works wonders for student relaxation and engagement, with laughter effectively breaking the ice. Suddenly, initially nervous students seem to feel that legal research class is a relaxed place of no judgment.
I have always been a big fan of laughter in class. I felt that I barely needed to study for the contracts section of the bar after the standup comic-like performance of my first year contracts professor was so engaging it made retention of the material especially easy. It is not just me, though! Ice breakers are common in all sorts of educational environments and levity in the classroom has been show to help students learn.
In my younger years, I put much more effort into the goofiness of the prizes. In my very early days, upon learning that it is possible to make felt out of cat fur, I cut some fur off one of my many cats, and painstakingly felted it into the shape of a cat. I glued some Googly eyes onto it and proudly awarded “the hairball cat” to a lucky student, who seemed rather surprised…but happy enough…to get it! (Historical note: Several years later when I was complaining to my library director about some coworker or other, he responded that someone who was reported to the dean for giving a student a hairball cat didn’t have much room to complain about others. So perhaps the student wasn’t THAT happy. Or maybe she was SO happy that she wanted to share her happiness with the dean? Who knows…the true story is lost to history now we because everyone is dead… (Just kidding – no one is dead!!))
Another notable prize was a 25 year old pack of baseball cards that I had laying around at home (the origin story of many of my prizes). Perhaps it wasn’t so much the prize that was notable, but rather the student reaction to it. After the student opened the pack, we all looked at the aged gum, wondering whether it was edible after all this time. Of course, no question need go unanswered in our Internet age, so we Googled it and found that more than a few YouTubers had asked themselves this question and answered in the affirmative. The student then ate the gum. (Another historical note: He reported no negative side effects.)
Another interesting student reaction involved a sand dollar. We have a global program at my law school so I had a research class comprised of only global students. Taking the opportunity to rid myself of some sea shells I had sitting in this jar for decades, I awarded a sand dollar as a prize. Unbeknownst to me, sand dollars are uncommon in some parts of the world? Or maybe I just had a lot of students who didn’t live close to an ocean at home? All I remember is that many of the students looked at it with wonder when they passed it around the classroom.
Anyway, over the years, I have continuously experimented with different classroom techniques and instructional approaches, and the one thing that has survived my many shakeups is the goofy prize box. Unless you are the sort of teacher that effortlessly elicits enthusiastic student participation, give it a try! Libraries usually have a lot of boxes sitting around and, if you are like me, your home and office is filled with useless stuff which students might find amusing.