The Peak-End Theory When Teaching a Class
However, in the waning months of the class I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. The students gave so much of themselves. I really wanted them to have a good memory of the class. Most readers of this site are likely familiar with the peak-end-theory. The general idea is that we tend to remember events based upon their peaks (highs and lows) and how they end. If something ends well, we often have a great memory of it. If it ends poorly, that is what we recall, even if the majority of the experience was pleasant. Here are some past articles on peak-end theory when shopping, when giving feedback, and when being disciplined.
How do most classes end? With a final exam (and often stress and pressure). Just thinking back to my past exams causes my neck to stiffen. Yet I needed to measure their understanding of the material. So what to do?
Using Appreciative Inquiry to Create a Peak-End Final Exam
What I did was let the students design their own final using a modified appreciative inquiry process.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a process whereby organizations identify moments in which they perform at their best, imagine what the organization would look like if they could cultivate these moments, and then implement a strategy to make that vision a reality. (Past articles are here and a conference summary is here.)
A key to the AI process is posing the question to be explored. If my question were something like “What do you want to do for the ‘final’ ?” blah, blah, blah . . . all the solutions would likely be limited to previous exam experience (multiple choice, short answer, etc.) This might have been ok. But I wanted to see if the students could design an assessment process that was meaningful to them. So in the end, we did not have a final. Rather, I told them that they would have “an opportunity to joyously demonstrate their mastery of positive psychology.”The Four Stages: Discovery-Dream-Design-Destiny
- DISCOVERY. The first step in the AI process is discovery: what worked in the past? Every person in the room had been tested multiple times, in multiple settings. Not just school. One student was a martial artist and had had to demonstrate her mastery of the art through competitive sparring. I said that is what I want for our class: the positive psychology equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. So in small groups, and then as a class, we talked about times that the students had been both in a state of flow and in the process of demonstrating mastery.
- DREAM. The second step is the dream: The class looked back on what worked in the past and together began to envision what would work well in the future — that is, in this class with this material.
- DESIGN. The third step is actually designing their final. The students planned and prioritized. What would work well with our class? There were distance education students, the scientific and reading-intensive subject matter, the need for the “exam” to be comprehensive, and so on. What the students ultimately created were two options: An oral presentation or a paper. Each student was to pick an event from real life – for example, a personal experience, something from the newspaper, a situation at work. Then the student was to demonstrate how positive psychology could be applied in that setting. Students also had to support their cases with the readings and to address multiple substantive areas from the class.
- DESTINY. The final stage of the AI process is destiny. Each student joyfully demonstrated their mastery of the subject matter. The papers and presentations were powerful. Some were very personal. Others stretched the concepts of positive psychology to show applications in other realms. One student did his presentation on the “Positive Psychology of Pain.” Another talked about what could be used from positive psychology to address the conflict in Afghanistan. In the end, everyone who watched the presentations experienced a sense of elevation. For days afterwards, I continued to receive calls and emails from students and another professor who all said the same thing: “Wow.”
The process worked because the students were given the freedom to design their own expression. Each took the subject and was able to think about it, and present it in a way that was personally meaningful. In the end, it was both a great measure of how well the students had absorbed the material, as well as a high point ending to a great year. It was simultaneously a peak and an end.
Author’s Note: I would like to publicly thank all of the PPND authors for their help this semester. I directed my students to the site, and they peppered the authors with questions. The authors were kind and prolific and thoughtful in their responses, and my students were thrilled and positively influenced by the dialogue. Thank you, thank you, thank you for a great year! ~ Sean
Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Other positive psychology university-level courses can be found here.