Update: read this post, then continue to the 2017 update here.
I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of the pedagogy of college teaching recently. I started by digging out my copy of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), combined with a lot of web reading centered around the Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular, I have been reading a lot of James Lang’s columns on engaging students. He cites games such as “binge-drinking games” (2014, para. 10) as a natural display of college student engagement. Relatedly, inÂ the blurb for Mark C. Carne’sÂ book Minds On Fire (2014), which is next on my reading list, beer pong is mentioned by name as a game that incites the passion of college students. My gears got turning: whyÂ can’t we play beer pong in the classroom?
Well, because alcohol is involved. But, what if instead of beer, each cup had a quiz question?
To back up a bit, I will describe beer pong for those who never had the pleasure. Cups of beer are arranged in a triangle, not unlike pins on a bowling alley, on two ends of a long table. There are two teams. They take turns tossing a ping pong ball towards the cups on the end of the table. If they score a hit in a cup, the other team has to remove that cup and drink that beer. This continues until one team has no cups left on their end, making them the losing team. There are additional rules and variations, but these are the general ones needed for a game.
Ok, what if instead of beer, each cup had a quiz question? Then, when the throwingÂ team sinks a ball into the cupÂ team’s cup, the cup team reads the question in that cup to the throwing team. If the throwing team gets it right, then they get a point. Play continues until one team is out of cups, or class time runs out. Here are officially-written rules for this game:
Beer(less) Pong Study Session
- 20 Solo-brand red cups (for authenticity)
- Several ping pong balls
- A long table
- 20 quiz questions, written on strips of paper
- Arrange Solo-brand red cups in two triangles of ten cups on both ends of a long table. The triangles are arranged like arrows pointing towards each other (medially).
- Add cheap, weighty objects to each cup to give them weight. BeansÂ have been used with success. Maybe candy?
- Place a quiz question in each cup.
- Divide the class into two teams. Each time assembles at one end of the table.
- Decide which team throws first. This could be done with a coin toss, rock-paper-scissors, or a warmup question.
- The tossing team tosses 1 ping pong ball towards the other end of the table with the goal of landing it inside a cup. IfÂ the ball misses, the turn goes to the other team.
- If the ball hits, the cup team reads the question inside the hit cup to the tossing team. If the tossing team cannot answer, or answers incorrectly, the turn goes to the other team.
- If the tossing team answers the question correctly, they score a point. The turn goes to the other team (to discourage shutouts).
- Students within each team take turns tossing the ball.
- The winning team is the oneÂ with the most points when time is up or when one team is out of cups.
- Each cup can have more than one question, each worth a point.
- The tossing team can toss more than one ball per turn.
- When one team is out of cups, that team could attempt to win by having one last attempt at scoring with the winning team’s cups.
A few thoughts and ideas:
This game works best for teams of fifteen students or fewer, so a class of 30 maximum. A typical lab section is around this size, so it could be a good pre-exam activity. For larger classes, having this activity in lieu of a usual bonus study session would also be a way to whittle the number of participants down. Imagine coming to a study session on one’s own time and seeing a beer pong setup in front of the classroom!
For extra immersion and ownership of the learning process, the two teams can also be the writers of the questions! This will take an amount of time that maybe better spent actually playing the game, but I think this additional activity of each time devising the questions that the other team will have to answer would be a valuable learning experience as well. In order to produce fair questions about the material, the students could be given the instruction to make the questions reflect what they consider the most important information and not the tiniest minutiae they can conjure.
For even more immersion and ownership of the learning process, the instructor can use these questions as the actual exam questions! This will give students an active role in what is traditionally the least interactive part of the course. As teaching assistantsÂ and instructors know, having to design a test is an education in its own right. This also has the benefits of saving the instructor some time in exam-writingÂ and alsoÂ preventing the sharing of test answers across semesters. Of course, the instructor would probably need to edit the questions and add his or her own into the mix, but giving the students some role in exam-writing is more education than no role at all.
I hope people try out this activity and report back on the results! I have a few other ideas… I never wrote about the “Beat the T.A.” game that I tweetedÂ a few months back.
Update: Kristina Killgrove turned the game from an idea to an action for her osteology class! You an read her account, with good tips and impressions here.Â I have added one important missed step above: to weigh the cups with something to keep them from moving around.
Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA:Â Harvard University Press.
Carnes, M.C. (2014). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lang, J.M. (2014, September 29). Stop blaming students for your listless classroom. Retrieved fromÂ http://chronicle.com/article/Stop-Blaming-Students-for-Your/149067