To Quote Or Not To Quote: What Was The Question?

Stephen TAY En Rong
Department of Building, School of Design & Environment

Stephen shares his experience with using quotes to interest his students in reading his announcement emails and found added positive effects in the process.

Photo courtesy of Victor from Pexels

Context

The famous opening line in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet—“To be, or not to be, that is the question”—depicts a struggle between the choices of life and death. My case, however, is much less sombre, in that I wanted to investigate if using quotes could reduce the frequent occurrence of students asking “what was the question?”, which happens when they miss reading announcement emails from me.

What went wrong? I re-read the emails, this time from a student’s perspective, and discovered an inconvenient truth: my emails were rote and lifeless. As a result, the likelihood that they are ignored is high.

How then could my announcements catch my students’ attention in their ever-growing inbox? I reflected and asked myself—when was the last time an email 1) caught my attention, and 2) left me pondering about it long after I left my inbox? While the former is important for the recipient to actually read the email, the latter is equally crucial for retention and subsequent action(s).

The answer I arrived at, on hindsight, was quite simple—an email with a relatable quote.

Why is this so? Are quotes that powerful? Jette Morache (1987) provided a thought-provoking perspective on the use of quotes in teaching literature:

What makes a quote worth saving? Is it a clever turn of a phrase, the striking beauty of language combination, a crystallization of a universal truth, an insightful statement that speaks to a personal perception…or a combination of these qualities?

As we move from poetic prose to numerical theorems, Julian Fleron shared a personal account of how quotes provided a “magical experience” for him that began a “remarkable transformation” in his journey to becoming an educator in mathematics (Fleron, 1998):

I believe that quotations have the ability to enrich all students’ mathematical educations, and some–like mine–in extremely powerful ways.

Assured, I decided to employ quotes in my modules to, in the words of David Levine (2012), “hold [the students’] imagination”. How well would these quotes fare with today’s bubble tea generation?

Learning Journey

My learning journey in answering this question started in the Research Methods module for both AY2018/19 and AY2019/20. Every announcement made was accompanied with a quote relevant to the topic being announced (see Figure 1 for examples).

Figure 1. Quotes used in announcements along with the accompanying topics on the left.

Were the quotes helpful in instilling student interest in the announcements? Based on the post-module surveys conducted for both modules, majority of the responses were positive (i.e. “Agree” and “Strongly agree”) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Responses from two cohorts with 57 and 27 respondents for AY 2018/19 and AY 2019/20 respectively.

What was interesting and unexpected for me was that the quotes inspired and motivated some students to work hard, reinforcing the notion that quotes could inspire students (Fleron, 1998). Below are examples of the qualitative feedback received:

The quotes [make] me think sometimes and motivates me to work.
The quotes were amazing and inspiring.
I enjoy attending your informative lessons and the end-of-email quotes. Thank you for teaching this module 🙂

Interestingly, no negative qualitative feedback about quotes was found, even though there were students who disagreed on its usefulness in instilling interest (see Figure 2). In another survey question, 39% of the respondents indicated that they investigated the names and profiles behind the quotes. I was encouraged by these findings as the use of quotes has helped expand their knowledge beyond the modules’ content, and enabled them to take a step forward in becoming more well-rounded learners—a tenet of the NUS Educational Philosophy (NUS Registrar’s Office, n.d.)

Reflection and Future Steps

Did the use of quotes instil interest and solve the problem of students missing and not acting on my email announcements? On the former, the results across two cohorts suggest that there was significant interest generated. On the latter, my educated guess, based on anecdotal observation of students, is that the number has decreased significantly.

Moving forward, I plan to continue this practice, and further elicit the role and impact of quotes in teaching, which has been used in the context of literature (Morache, 1987), mathematics (Fleron, 1998), medicine (Levine, 2012), and even in Mensa (Mensa for Kids, n.d.). This is further motivated by the absence of specialised software and hardware required, which significantly reduce the barrier for implementation. If you have used quotes in your teaching, please do contact me as I would love to hear your experience.

To end, I would like to share the opening of Julian Fleron’s (1998) piece:

Let us give students ideas worthy of their contemplation. The erudition found in quotations down through the ages is grist for the thinking of today’s youth. (Jerry Flack from Quotations in the Classroom, 1993)

 To quote or not to quote, hopefully this answers the question.

Stephen TAY is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Building and an Adjunct Researcher at the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore. His passion lies in solar photovoltaic (PV) for the built environment, which he teaches in the modules PF3105 “Research Methods”, PF3504 “Energy Management”, and PF4305 “Green Development”. In addition, he is actively involved in outreach activities to educate both local and overseas participants on solar energy and its relevance for us today.

Stephen can be reached at stephen.tay@nus.edu.sg.

References

Flerion, J. F. (1998). Quotations for every Mathematics class. The Mathematics Teacher, 91(7), 549-553. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/27970683.

Levine, D. (2012). Revalidating Sherlock Holmes for a role in medical education. Clinical Medicine, 12(2), 146-149. https://doi.org/10.7861/clinmedicine.12-2-146.

Mensa for Kids (n.d.). Quotation Station. Retrieved from https://www.mensaforkids.org/teach/lesson-plans/quotation-station/.

Morache, J. (1987). Use of quotes in teaching literature. The English Journal, 76(6), 61-63. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/818060.

NUS Registrar’s Office (n.d.). NUS Educational Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.nus.edu.sg/registrar/academic-information-policies/education-at-nus.