Master “The Double Tap” for Success on Assignments

“In those moments when you’re not sure the undead are really dead dead, don’t get all stingy with your bullets. I mean, one more clean shot to the head and this lady could have avoided becoming a human happy meal. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.”—Zombieland (2009)

zlstill2It always seems to be at the end of the semester when a good portion of students finally get around to visiting me during office hours, asking about their scores and inquiring about tactics to be successful on final tests. I guess the reality of the impending end-of-it-all, finally makes grades real. The anxiety among some is palpable.

Just yesterday afternoon, for example, a student in my Introduction to Anthropology class stopped by during office hours to discuss her midterm exam and how she could do better on the final. I wanted to begin by pointing out that the midterm was months ago, and that stopping in earlier would have helped. I’m always happy when anyone visits me during office hours, however, so I was more than willing to review her test and see what feedback I could offer.

Reviewing her exam, I noticed that she had a few points off on most of the essay and short answer questions. She didn’t have many of them entirely wrong, but just didn’t give complete answers. She said she had done the readings, been engaged in class discussions, and had not missed many classes. While I didn’t look at how well she has done on other assignments, her test performance was average at best.

zlstill3I’ve noticed in recent years that when students who are otherwise prepared perform poorly it is often because they provide incomplete answers. It seems they write only as much as they need to write. It appears that they respond with what they think will be just enough to meet the requirements—running the race just barely clearing each hurdle. Then they stop. They quickly fire off an answer and then poop out. Giving a single shot and then moving on provides no room for error, no margin for mistakes.

This may appear to be a useful survival skill for navigating the chaotic life of an undergraduate. It isn’t. If the shot at the question isn’t perfect, then it isn’t complete. If you’re wrong. You’re dead.

When college undergraduates in my classes ask me for tips to be successful on assignments and tests, I share some of these anecdotal observations with them. I then ask them why in those moments when they are doing assignments or taking tests—the moment when survival really counts—they get stingy with the word counts and conservative with the explanations. Why when it matters most do they just try once and then walk away? Why fire off a simple comment and expand the margins and font sizes until it looks like a hit.

zlstill4The difference between average and something better might just be a bit of extra time for one more clear example, taking aim and firing off one more well-placed critical comment.

Only after the test do they express regrets. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.

A bloody zombie comedy might seem an unlikely place to find wisdom for success in college, but always double tap.



  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    Hmmm, I think I’m more cynical than you are. When I see those short answers, I figure that’s all they bothered to memorize about that topic. This semester I’ve given quizzes that describe a situation and then ask the students to discuss the acoustic issues involved, keeping the “I can . . .” statements of our class in mind. They know that they’ll only get scores for each “I can . . .” statement, so some simply have a pat phrase for each, some not even referring to the given situation. If they know it, they usually do a great job of tying lots of things together.

    I guess what it sounds like you’re saying is that they know more, but they’re stopping when they think they’ve written enough. I’m saying, maybe that’s all they know. When you talk to them later, do you get evidence backing that up?


  2. I think it’s tied to something comp folks call writer-based reasoning. What seems obvious to the writer comes off as incomplete, or logically disjointed, to the reader. For years I’ve had people do some silly exercise (Explain how to put on a jacket) and then illustrated how insufficient our answers really are–how much we assume the reader will fill in.

    I would then say “Write like your audience–in this case, me–is in the 6th grade. Explain too much.”. (Etc. It’s easier for a reader to ignore repetition than to give the writer credit for what’s missing.). But the double-tap concept is way better! It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about doubling down.

    Andy, to your point: in at least some significant subset the writers really did know their stuff, confirmed in follow-ups and/or revisions.


  3. Damn, lost a reply. Okay — I think this problem may be tied to something we in comp call “writer-based reasoning.” The writer believes a point is crystal clear, that to say any more would be obvious, or repetitive. The reader is, however, confused, or sees the argument as disjointed, or just feels it’s incomplete.

    I often get a conversation going about the problem by doing some simple exercise — write a concise explanation of how to put a jacket on (or some such common everyday activity). Then I grab a jacket, and use two or three examples to illustrate how confoundedly difficult it is to convey what’s obvious to us in clear, effective prose. In the past I’ve then said imagine I’m a 6th-grader — don’t dumb down the ideas, but do assume you have to tell/write more than you *think* you have to in order to communicate fully and clearly to me. But the double-tap is a waaaaaay better method for capturing that concept.

    Andy, to your point: sure, some folks just don’t really have it (the info, or the logic of the argument they’re making). But I’ve found that often–in writer conferences afterwards, or in subsequent revisions–that it’s a problem of prose not a problem of knowledge or preparation.


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