Ceding Control: Risk & Reward

It’s tough to assess students early and often in a night class. If you teach new material before the test, no one is focused on it. They’re worried about the exam. If you test first, there’s a risk students will leave when they finish. To prepare for the first exam, we identified test topics and assigned weights. I proposed a timeline for the exam night. I explained my thinking and asked for suggestions. They made recommendations and I revised. Then I took pictures and posted them in the LMS. This was our plan.


To be honest, I was pleased with the exam content plan, and concerned about the evening’s agenda. Twenty minutes of break seemed way too long after an exam. Students wanted a long enough break to pick up takeout! My gut told me students would finish the test and go home. But this was our plan. Teachers routinely ask or expect students to trust us. It was my turn to trust them.

Exam day was long and busy. At 6pm we followed our plan. After the 30-minute review, students began the 60-minute test. Around 7:40 I took the exams to my office. I collected my thoughts, gathered my energy for the lesson, and wondered how many students would be there.

At 7:50 I reentered the classroom. It was filled with students! I was surprised and thrilled. What a credit to their motivation and maturity! We debriefed a bit about the test. As of 8pm, 50 of the 60 students stayed or returned for the lesson.

I started by complimenting them. I decided to reward each with an engagement ticket (1-point bonus to be used at their discretion). Students passed around a sign in sheet they labeled “Extra credit because we stayed :-).” I pledged to make the lesson worthy of their decision to stay. After a mini-lecture we problem-solved and they completed one practice problem. We called it a night at 8:40.

I was still beaming when I got home an hour later. Why did they stay? I know it wasn’t the topic. Closing entries are about as dry as it gets in accounting. Points didn’t motivate since attendance isn’t graded. My college-age kids said it’s a tribute to my teaching. If that’s true, what’s the takeaway for teachers?

Mano Singham has greatly influenced my thinking on the syllabus and classroom management. In “Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom” he writes:

“…learning is an inherently voluntary 
act that you can no more force than you can force someone to love you. Authoritarianism and fostering a love of learning just do not go together” p.55.

“The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people, similar to what one might have with friends. A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance” p.57.

In “Death to the Syllabus” he says,

“The implicit message of the modern course syllabus is that the student will not do anything unless bribed by grades or forced by threats” p.52.

“There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts” pp.54-55.

“It is assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do” p.55.

I don’t think this group is an outlier of highly motivated students. Nor do I believe my lectures and lessons are especially fun. That kind of thinking reduces teaching to entertaining. It also sells students short.

The literature and this experience suggest reduced teacher control and shared decision-making changes the dynamic in the classroom.

We made a plan.

We lived up to it.

Ceding control is straightforward, but not easy. I feared students wouldn’t follow through. But I took a chance and trusted their judgment. A small risk paid off big time. What are your experiences with shared decision-making? How might you cede some control to students?


Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, May/June: 51-57.

Singham, M. 2007. Death to the Syllabus. Liberal Education, Fall: 52-56.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on October 6, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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