The Cognitive Efficiency of Rankings

Marshalling items into an order or ranking them seems to please our brains. There is a certain cognitive efficiency in such rankings.  After all, ranking reflects a type of organization and efficiency.  And a top ten list can potentially save a person a lot of time from having to perform individual research.  Such a predilection for categorizing an assortment of items into groups might also explain our desire to bestow awards for best performance or to make predictions like most likely to succeed. 

With the Oscars, which are also known as the Academy Awards, approaching on February 24, a teacher might wish to harness their students’ interest to this popular event. Whether with research or with a statistical analysis, opportunities for learning abound.  For years, I have imitated these ranking systems and tied them to content assessment.

Just as the Oscars, the most prestigious performance-based awards given in 24 different categories on an annual basis, show appreciation for a performer’s work in cinema and film, I developed the Academy Awards Project to assess students’ ability to synthesize their reading of literature in the English classroom. 

I would invite students to make Academy Award-style judgments.  After reading, listening to, and viewing a variety of literature over the course of a school term, students would apply that awards ceremony to selecting superlatives in the literary categories I outlined.  These categories can be tailored to fit the content area and the focus of coursework.

Each student or group of students would be responsible for ONE of the thirteen categories listed. Then, students would consider at least five possible nominees; from among these candidates, they would choose a winner.  Such a task invites them not only to think carefully about how the nominee is explained, described, portrayed, and developed; but to ensure they develop clear criteria for what makes a nominee "outstanding."  Students were also required to support their choices and to include comparisons/contrasts to other candidates they considered.  Their written supports would show readers why the nominees really do stand out.

  • Outstanding Character--Male:  Who was the most outstanding male character in the literature we encountered this term? 
  • Outstanding Character--Female:  Who was the most outstanding female character in the literature we encountered this term? 
  • Best Supporting Character--Male:  Who was the most outstanding male supporting character in the literature we encountered this term?  A supporting character is one who is important to the events of the work, but who is not the main character.
  • Best Supporting Character--Female:  Who was the most outstanding female supporting character in the literature we encountered this term?  A supporting character is one who is important to the events of the work, but who is not the main character.
  • Most Pathetic Character: This is a character who falls far below human standards for whatever reason you wish to cast the character in that position.  Perhaps the character is spineless, whiny, lacks the usual coping mechanisms, seems less real than other characters, or for some other reason just doesn't earn any sympathy from readers.
  • Best Setting:  What was the most outstanding setting in the literature we encountered this term?  A work can include more than one setting; for instance, there may be several inside rooms that are treated as different settings, or an entire house may work as a setting juxtaposed to an outside setting.  Think carefully about how this setting is important to the work as a whole.  An outstanding setting is more than a well described place.
  • Short Story:  What was the most outstanding short story we encountered this term?  All of the aspects of the story should unite in an exemplary piece of literature.  You should account for such aspects as character, setting, plot, structure, tone, point of view, and style.
  • Poem:  What was the most outstanding poem we read this term?  All aspects of the poem should unite in an exemplary piece of literature.  You should account for such aspects as symbolism, structure, tone, point of view, rhyme, rhythm, and style.  Additionally, account for the effectiveness of conventions that apply to the kind of poem you've selected (for example, a dramatic monologue or sonnet).
  • Novel or Play:  What was the most outstanding novel or play we encountered this term?  All aspects of the work should unite in an exemplary whole.  You should account for such aspects as character, setting, plot, structure, tone, point of view, and style.
  • Descriptive Passage (50 words or fewer):  What was the most outstanding descriptive passage in the literature we encountered this term?  The passage can describe anything: a character, a setting, an event, and so forth.  Think carefully about how the descriptive setting that you choose works.  What kind of detail does it use?  What literary techniques does it rely upon?  Furthermore, consider what makes this description important to the work as a whole.
  • Sentence:  What was the most outstanding sentence in the literature we encountered this term?  The sentence can serve any purpose in the text--exposition, description, and so forth.  Think carefully about how the sentence that you choose works.  What kind of detail does it use?  What literary techniques does it rely upon?  What syntactic features does it employ?  In addition, think about what makes this sentence important to the work as a whole.
  • Plot:  What was the most outstanding plot in the literature we encountered this term?  Think carefully about how the plot is structured; what are the key turning points or events, and how do the components combine in an overall structure that is unique or exemplary?
  • Use of Symbolism:  What was the most outstanding use of symbolism in the literature we encountered this term?  How is it symbolic?  What does it symbolize?  How is the symbol important to the work as a whole?  Why does it stand out? 

I modified this idea and these categories when I taught college level literature courses.  In the form of a final examination, I would invite students to recall voting for senior superlatives in their high school yearbooks, remembering such rankings as a fun way to look back on the people they grew up with. They would then imitate these categories (i.e. Most Quirky, Best Ride, Most Athletic, Life of the Party, Best All-around) or invent their own and apply them to their semester reading.  A question like this might stimulate and guide their thinking: Consider the body of your reading this semester, and looking back on the characters you’ve met, create a Fiction Memorial in which you reward at least ten characters for their idiosyncrasies.  1) Write the award, then after the colon 2) tell which book the character is from, and 3) provide a brief explanation for why/how the character has earned this status.  Although I would share twenty-eight or so categories, I would encourage creativity and innovation in favor of limitations.    

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