It was the beginning of November 2019, almost towards the end of the semester, when I had to take an online quiz for the undergrads taking my Ecology course. I hate taking assignments such as quizzes, but I have to say, given the size of the class (usually upwards of 105 students), it is an easy way out. Online platforms such as Google forms make life easier for the instructor since the assignment results are obtained immediately. There was one issue, though. The students, at that time, were in their homes, unsurveilanced, and as a result, some of them would choose to find answers using unfair means. Here’s a sample question from the quiz:
The honeybee Apis mellifera communicates with other members of its hive to provide the location of food source. Based on experimental studies, which of the following best describes a food source found in close proximity?
For questions (and options) like these, it is easy for the student to discard the last three options and remember from the class lectures whether it is the “round dance” or the “waggle dance”. For someone who does not recall the correct answer from the class lectures, an easy way out is to ‘search’ on the internet using strings like “honeybee”, “dance”, “close”, and “proximity”. That would give them the answer they are looking for. I thought that the only way to ensure that the students do not use unfair means to get to the answers is by assigning a time-constrained quiz. I thought that by reducing time, the students would not have the leeway to search for answers on the internet. So I gave them 15 minutes to answer 30 questions that were short, direct, and easy to read, such as the question above.
To my surprise, I found some students choosing “Govinda-style dance” as the answer! Perhaps 15 minutes was too short to answer 30 questions for many students, which is why some chose options randomly. I enquired with the students on the Google Classroom platform, asking why they would choose options such as “Govinda-style dance” or “Kathakali” in response to the question. Some of the students mailed me directly, confirming that they panicked because of the time constraint.
I later found out that some students posted screenshots of my Google Classroom message on Instagram with captions such as “30 questions, 15 minutes, cannot blame them” and “15 mins, 30 questions, you decide whom to pick..whom to throw”. I was not very happy about students taking to social media with their rants, and therefore I asked them to refrain from putting them up. A few of the students mailed me to apologize for putting up the stories, but almost all of them said that they, as students, tend to have the habit of making memes out of situations to make them humorous.
I knew the evolutionary definition of the word meme, as was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins. A meme refers to a pattern of behaviour or idea that spreads within a culture via imitation. I was woefully unaware of the use of the “other” meme (internet memes), which are images or videos that may be copied with slight variations and used in a humorous way to explain a trending situation. The humorous nature of internet memes strikes a chord with young students, and that is when I realized that memes have the potential to be used as a teaching tool!
I decided to assign meme-making as one of my undergrad-level evolutionary biology course assignments. Towards the end of the course, when I had almost finished teaching the syllabus contents, I announced this assignment so that people can use the concepts taught in class to make internet memes. I asked each student to submit one meme that is based on a concept that was taught in class. It could even be related to an example that I may have mentioned in the classroom. I saw their faces light up in excitement when I announced this in the classroom. I knew that the students would enjoy this assignment, but little did I expect that some would even submit 5 – 6 additional memes just because they were having so much fun making them!
In my experience of teaching undergraduates, students tend to procrastinate; they either submit minutes before the deadline or well past it. In the case of the meme assignment, I faced the unprecedented situation of the entire batch of registered students (107) submitting their assignments a day before the deadline! This shows that novel and more relatable approaches are required to keep up the interest level of the students; else, it becomes mundane for the students.
A ‘serious’ jury
Being unaware of the circulating internet memes, one of the issues I faced was grading the assignments. Thankfully, some of the members of my lab (about five members) understood memes very well and helped out in the grading. All these students had taken my course earlier and were well aware of the concepts and examples that were taught in class. I learned from them that every illustration in the ‘meme-pool’ should be used in a specific manner. (The meme makers take themselves very seriously!) Keeping this in mind, the ‘meme-judging committee’ and I sat together and went through the main entries made by each student. The submission was displayed through a projector so that all the jury members could see it at once and discuss it. Thereafter, we assigned a score to each meme ranging from 1 – 10, with 10 being par excellence. It was GREAT fun going through each of the entries, and at times all of us would be cackling raucously.
Besides the grading, I provided further incentive to the students by announcing that the top five memes would be printed, framed, and presented to the maker in front of the class. After going through all the entries, we realized that many of the memes were brilliantly designed and deserved appreciation. Therefore, I went ahead and printed the top five memes as T‑shirts and presented them to the meme makers. The top 6 – 10 meme makers were presented with framed prints that could sit at a desk. This could serve as a souvenir while giving them a sense of achievement.
As course instructors moulding young impressionable minds, it is also up to us to keep up with the changing times and devise new ways to reach out to the students. Access to information is much easier now than a decade or two earlier. However, at times, students get bombarded with too much information and much of this is not retained or leaves an impression. Novel methods of teaching, such as meme-making or similarly engaging assignments that the students of that age can relate to, make a massive impression down the line.