Poker Chips in the Classroom

One of the rewarding things about teaching is positively impacting young peoples’ lives.  I have written about Pat Murphy, one of the teachers who had a positive impact on me.  Other than letting them know, all we can do is pay it forward.

I wish I could tell you I know how to do it.  I don’t.  I do know how to be myself (i.e., authentic), so I do that.  And written feedback on student evaluations suggests that works, to some extent, anyway.  It turns out, however, that using poker chips to produce class discussion has paid unexpected dividends.  And a number of people have introduced it to their classrooms and found it useful, so this post explains how and why I use poker chips.

When I was a student I was frustrated by the fact that few of my classmates did the reading.  So when I was assigned my first course, as a PhD student at Colorado, I wanted to do something to change that.  I thought a bit about learning, and decided that, in my opinion, the most effective learning occurs one-on-one with a text, followed by one-on-one discussion; followed by small group discussion; followed by large group discussion; followed by lecture.  But discussion is only more effective than lecture when the students have done the reading: the fewer student who have read the material, the less likely it is that lecture is not superior to discussion.  I further believe that lecture has a moral hazard: fewer students will read when the instructor lectures.  My problem, then, was to change the proportion of students who arrived to class having completed the assigned reading.  But how would I do that?

I don’t properly recall the sundry techniques I tried during that first course, but I know pop quizzes, brief summaries turned in prior to class, and calling on students were among them.  Calling on students worked better than the others, but I remembered that human beings are poor at producing random sequences, and became concerned about unintentional bias as I selected names from the class roster.  So it occurred to me that I needed a randomization device.  That is how the poker chips in a tupperware bowl was born.  I use a Sharpie to write numbers on the chips (one for each student in the course), print a roster and assign a number to each student, and bring both the chips and the roster to class.  I then conduct class by drawing a chip and calling on the student with that number, and asking them to address a question about the reading.

A brief aside on logistics: I place the bowl on the lectern shelf, thus making it clear to the students in the classroom that when I put my hand in to draw a chip I cannot see the chips and it truly is random.  Prior to beginning each class I mix them vigorously in the bowl, which makes a loud noise, thus signalling class is about to begin.  I require that the students stand when called upon: it turns out that standing dramatically cuts down the likelihood that a student who did not to do the reading will try to BS.  I also have a three strike rule: a student who his called upon can twice request that I “come back to her” if she did the reading, but feels flustered by that question or just has a brain fart.  I then  draw another chip, and next call upon the student who requested the delay.  After two requests a student must respond, or I “pocket” the chip.  After a student responds I return the chip to the bowl (their chip might get drawn again, later in the period), unless the response is sufficiently poor that I “pocket” the chip.  After class I retrieve the chips from my pocket and record in my grade spreadsheet whatever is appropriate.

There are a number of ways one might grade participation in conjunction with the poker chips.  I tend to begin the semester with everyone having a score of 100% for participation, and each time their chip is drawn they could lose X% points for not participating effectively (answering poorly, explaining they did not do the reading, or being absent).  I set X equal to 100*(1/# of days) the course meets that semester.  Others have created different systems.

So, what happens?  My experience over two decades is that few of the students who did not read attend class.  Since I have taught at large, state universities that means that I generally have about 40% of the students present in any given class, but over 90% of them have done the reading.  The most common written comment I get on my evaluations is: “I hated the chips, but they made me do the reading,” or “The chips are awful, but this is the only course for which I did all the reading.”  In other words, the chips produce the outcome I was looking for.

That said, there are two stories I would like to share that were produced by the chips.  The first involves Jillian Weise, an Assistant Professor of English at Clemson who took my Political Violence course a number of years ago.  Jillian is the author of the two books below.


I remember the first time I drew Jillian’s chip.  She sat up front and looked petrified. Standing requires more effort for Jillian than it does an able bodied student as she uses crutches.  She didn’t ask to be excused from standing, so I waited while she stood, and as I try to do always, but especially when a student looks particularly nervous, looked her in the eye and smiled.  I quickly learned that Jillian was both one of the best prepared students in that class, and the brightest.  My recollection, which is faulty at best, is that over the course of the semester Jillian’s chip was drawn more frequently than average (there is, of course, a distribution, and some students are called on more/less frequently than others).  Or perhaps she just contributed without being called on as the semester wore on and her confidence grew.

At some point during the semester, or perhaps it was after the semester, Jillian came to my office and explained that she really loved the course, and that though the chips terrified her, the system was great.  She expressed an interest in working with me on a Directed Independent Study course, and in 2002 wrote a research paper titled Rape as a Strategy of War: The Sexual Assault of Kosovar Albanian Women in 1999 [PDF file].  Not long ago I received an email from a researcher who works on sexual assault in war at Peace Research Institute Oslo asking me about the paper.  Last week Jillian emailed me to explain that she is going up for tenure and needed to put together a teaching portfolio. She uses the chips and wondered where I had gotten the idea, and had I ever written about it.  I explained how I came up with the idea, and that I had never written about it.  She replied:

You’ve gotta write the chips process down somewhere. It is revolutionary. It has made me feel more confident in a classroom full of mostly white, entirely able-bodied students. They tend to want me to be their mother, their weak crippled professor, etc. Instead of having to perform authority, the chips do it for me. I am forever grateful.

I’ll just say that I don’t get email like that everyday.

The other story I wish to share involves a young woman whose chip was drawn five or six times throughout that semester.  She would rise each time, a deer-in-the-headlights look in her eye, take a few deep breaths, and then sit back down.  I would ask if she would like me to come back to her, and she would nod her head.  Each time we repeated the process through strike one, strike two, and then strike three.  She never raised her hand to join the discussion, but she always attended class.  I assumed she was extraordinarily shy or that she had an unusually strong case of stage fright.  Around the third time in the semester that this happened, a couple of students audibly groaned and others rolled their eyes when I asked if she would like me to come back to her.  I was surprised at how irritated I was by this, and reacted more angrily than I should have, but nobody groaned or clucked at this during the rest of the semester.  After class I asked her to visit my office hours, and when she arrived I asked whether there was anything I could do to make her comfortable contributing to discussion.  She made rather limited eye contact, even one on one in my office, by said that there was not.  I asked whether she was prepared, and she said that she was.  I asked whether the material was too difficult, and she explained that while she felt other students were smarter than she, she felt like she could answer the questions, but when it came time to do so, she just couldn’t.  So I asked whether she would prefer that when I draw her chip in the future, that I just pocket it and move on.  She looked up sharply and intently and blurted out: “No.”  I smiled, a bit surprised, and unsure what to think, but said “OK, I won’t.”  And for the rest of the semester, we repeated the “stand, deep breaths, sit” ritual three times on the handful of occasions when her chip was drawn.

The following semester that student dropped by my office.  I was surprised to see her.  She said she wanted to thank me, and more surprised now, I offered her a seat.  She asked if I could close my office door.  I did so, and sat down.  I do not recall precisely what she said, but it was something like this:

I want to thank you because you are the first man in my life who has shown any interest in what I have to say.  I am terribly sorry that I never spoke when you drew my chip.  I felt awful like I was letting you down every time.  But you didn’t give up on me, and you defended me in front of the other students.  My dad used to rape me as I was growing up. He was never interested in my thoughts, and my uncles and grandfather weren’t either.  Your class taught me that was wrong, that I do have thoughts people want to hear, and that I need to work on my self esteem.

I would love to tell you that I was non-plussed, and responded well, encouraging her to open up further, but that isn’t true.  I’m not at all sure what I said in response, but I am generally uncomfortable receiving thanks and praise, and I was blown away by what she had said.  My face surely communicated not only surprise, but discomfort.  As I recall, we spoke for a few minutes, me asking whether she seeing a therapist, and her affirming that she was.

That experience occurred fairly early in my career, and beyond demonstrating an expected value of using a randomization device like poker chips it reinforced an important maxim: you have no idea what might lead a  student to respond in a given way to a situation in your classroom, so don’t assume.  It further underscored the most important point: be a human being engaging another human being.  It isn’t hard.  And you can never tell when you might make a difference

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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10 Responses to Poker Chips in the Classroom

  1. John Ahlquist says:

    very helpful Will. Thanks.

  2. Will H. Moore says:

    A friend of mine who teaches at UC, Davis (Mark Lubell) posted the following question on my Facebook wall: How do you manage discussion after chip respondent answers?

    Mark, I think there is at least one trade-off: providing critical feedback v encouraging discussion (i.e., reducing stress about being called upon / encouraging discussion when a chip is not drawn). I bias my classroom toward the latter, and a technique I use to do that is to non-respond, and instead ask whether any students have a reaction (more specifically, augmentation, correction or elaboration). When they do not I often draw a chip and then ask that student to augment, correct or elaborate. At the start of the semester discussion is much like a one-on-many tennis match, and my goal is to get students responding to one another, ultimately generating genuine debate/discussion. I emphasize the value of referencing specific page #s (that helps sharpen discussion considerably), and a few years ago I adopted an explicit civil discussion policy (the chip is pocketed for uncivil participation).

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  4. I do something similar in my (graduate) intro game theory course; everyone’s name is in a hat (the “hat of doom,” of course), and a draw from there determines who comes to the board to work out a problem and explain to the class what they’re doing as they solve it. Part of it is evening out participation, part is training them (if indirectly) as teachers, and part is the nature of the material—you can read it and think you get it, you can watch me do the math and think you get it, but you don’t really *get it*, in the sense of being able to use it, until you can come before a class full of your peers and walk through your solution on the board.

    Of course, after reading your post, I’m likely to be one of the many who adopts a similar strategy for my undergrads as well. Good stuff.

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Hat of Doom: excellent! I have not taught Intro IR in a long time, but when I did I used the BdM text and used the chips to call on folks to come up to the board and work the expected utility calculations in Bennett’s workbook. Then I drew a chip for a second student who came to the board and explained to the class whether the student had done the problem properly (i.e., walk through the calculation), and correct it if not. Two for one.

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