Monday, November 21, 2016

Should I tell HS students that if they do well I'll write them a letter OR do I want them to ...

I teach a 3-week intense course for HS students on cryptography during the summer. Some of the students are very good, interested, and working hard. I also give out some extra credit assignments that some of them do.  For such students I am glad to write letters of rec for college. I want to reward them for working hard and being interested not knowing that they will get a letter for it.

These students don't quite know about colleges and letters and that stuff. I have two choices:

1) The first day tell them that if they do well I could write a letter for them.

PRO- this will encourage some of them to work harder

CON- I want them to work hard and BE interested (not just SHOW interest, though I doubt they are that good as actors) NOT because of some reward but because they really are interested. Contrast:

Bob showed an intense interest in computer science


Bob showed an intense interest in computer science but it may have been just for show to get this letter. Gee, I can't tell.

2) Don't tell them. This way when they work hard and show interest its more likely genuine.

PRO- as noted, their behavior is genuine

CON- They may not work as hard.

I tend to do (1) now- tell them. One thing, don't tell them too much and make it simple. I used to say that I would write a letter even for a B student if there were extenuating circumstances or if I could tell they really were good and just happened to blow an exam, or something like that. But this just invites more questions about what they need to get a letter, and I've never  had one of those cases where a B-student is better than he looks. (This could be because my exams are of the type where there is no time pressure as evidenced by half the students leaving about half way through. They are not easy, but they depend on knowledge not cleverness, so more time does not help. Or it could be something else about my teaching and grading.)

So- better to tell them about a letter option or not?


  1. This blog post renders your question moot, unless *none* of your students reads your blog :-)

  2. I wouldn't bring up LORs unless prompted (or only mention it at the end). It makes the students feel like they are being assessed, rather than being there to learn. That may make them less willing to ask "dumb" questions. You could run an experiment: mention LORs halfway through and see how things change.

  3. "CON- They may not work as hard."

    Why is this a con? Artificially boosting students will lead them to eventually fall flat on their face, potentially after taking an opportunity away from someone more worthy.

  4. I think it's good to tell students that you will write letters - not everyone is savvy enough to know that you can send additional letters, so not saying anything will reward those students who are. I think a good compromise is to say something at the end, or the middle of the course.

    1. I like the idea of waiting until the end and then letting any outstanding students know that he'll write a letter for them.