Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Communications, Evolution, and Motivation

I think three essential keys to having a successful class are:

--Communications – Your students cannot read your mind.   If you want to direct them or influence them, you have to have a way to communicate with them.  In my opinion, teaching in college at a high level becomes almost impossible if you do not have some effective method of communication.

--Evolution – I want my students to get better as students as the semester progresses   It is not just that I want them to learn more material.   I literally want them to become better, more effective students.  I want them to grow as thinkers--over and above the subject matter that I teach.

--Motivation – Students are human beings.   They become tired.  They become discouraged and frustrated.   I am not a cheerleader, but I do believe my students will improve if I both push them and entice them to work harder and think more deeply.  A litte push can be helpful.

When I tell the above to any group, someone will invariable ask me for an example.   Okay, here is one from my classes today.

My students have a few days off for our fall break.   I want them to rest and relax, but I also want them to come back with a renewed vigor about my class.   I do not want the semester to be a slow slide into mediocrity.   Right before they left, I emailed them the following note.

Will they all read it and make some changes?   No, of course not – that is silly.   Nevertheless, I suspect a few students will read it and think about it and, perhaps, come back ready to do better.  I very much want them to avoid giving up and accepting an average grade.  Instead of coasting out the semester, I want them to try harder and try smarter.   For me, and hopefully a few of my students, this email combines communication, evolution, and motivation.  

At half time, what message do you want to send to your students?

Email to my students:

I have an assignment for you for fall break.   It is not the typical type of assignment where I ask you to write a paper or do some practice problems.

Our course is not yet half-complete but it is getting there.   You have approximately 20 percent of your grade finalized.  We have been together now for enough weeks that I am no longer a mystery to you.   I guarantee that you now know what I want.   If I asked each of you to write a paragraph titled, “What does the professor really want from me?” you would all get the grade of A, maybe A+.

I always talk a lot about half-time adjustments.   A football or basketball team is behind at half time and looks destined for defeat.   At half time, the coach and players make necessary adjustments and suddenly look like an entirely new team in the second half.   They turn things around and march on to victory.   It is not a rare event.   It happens every weekend.   Half-time adjustments are just a necessary part of a long game. 

I read yesterday a quote from Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric back in its better days (1981-2001).    Few CEOs have ever achieved the status of Welch.   The quote was a simple one, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”   I think if you are looking for a guide to success, those words are pretty darn powerful. 

As far as I am concerned, you are in the business of being a college student.   Yes, you have many other responsibilities and interests but if you are a full-time college student trying to attain an education, then you are in the business of being a college student.  After four (or so) years, this college student business might prove successful or it might not.  I believe you need a vision of your approach to that business, one that you can passionately own and relentlessly drive to completion.  That vision, I think, will help make those years more likely to be ones that you look back on with pride.

Here is my assignment for you over our fall break.   Even if it is not quite half time of this semester, I want you to consider what adjustments you need to try in your approach to this course.   For some, these changes might be slight, for others more dramatic.  You know what I want from you.  You have to decide (sooner rather than later) how you need to improve your approach and then you need to do it.  It is a two-step approach.  It is up to you.   I just want you to consider the possibilities.

However, I want you to take on this assignment with Jack Welch’s words in mind.  Take some time to do some serious thinking about your vision of YOU as a college student, create and articulate the vision you really want.  I think Jack Welch delivered some great business advice but also some great personal advice.  I feel that everyone needs a vision of their business that is so right for them that they feel led to drive relentlessly toward its completion.  

I realize you are mostly 18-20 year olds, but it does not take much of a view of the world to realize that a whole lot of people do not have much of a vision for their business or for themselves.   Mediocrity is not hard to find.   I think colleges should push the idea of a personal vision more.  Your vision of yourself will undoubtedly change over time but now is the perfect time (here at fall break) to start developing a vision of YOU in your business of being a college student.

Assignment:   Figure out your vision for your business and then consider any half-time adjustments that will drive you toward that vision.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Quick note:   If you are in need of a little inspiration as you begin a new school year, at the video link below, I tell four stories about teaching that I hope will get every teacher excited about another year in the classroom.  On good days, it is a truly marvelous and wonderful profession.  And, even on bad days, it can still be extremely rewarding.  I hope the video reminds you of that fact.

Thoughts on Testing:  I am currently writing tests for my students so testing is on my mind.  Our first examination of the semester is tomorrow.  As I enter my 48th year in the classroom, I am convinced that the writing and grading of tests is a true pain in the neck.  In fact, testing stopped being fun for me while Richard Nixon was president of the United States.

However, I am even more certain that testing can be (and should be) an extremely positive influence on student learning.  For that reason, I still invest an enormous amount of time in thinking and constructing examinations.  

In one of the first speeches I ever delivered about teaching years ago, I made the observation that,

                   “The way you test is the way your students will learn.” 

If you test students on memorization, they will work diligently to memorize every word you utter no matter how you teach them.  However, if you test their critical thinking skills, your students will quickly realize that memorization is not helpful and begin to focus their attention on critical thinking. 

If that is true (and I believe it is), then you cannot simply rely on a publisher’s test bank for your test questions.  For years, I have argued vehemently against the use of test banks.  I think they have done more harm to college learning than virtually anything else I know.  

Consequently, I want to provide you with three testing tips from my own experience as a teacher.   All of them have helped me over the years in the teaching of my students.  Perhaps, you will find one or two that are helpful to you. 

(1) – Notes – I always allow my students to bring two sheets of notes to every test.  They have to be hand-written because I want each student to do their own thinking about what is important, what material I am likely to cover and what questions I might ask.  I believe students need to learn to assess the relative importance of what we discuss in class.  By limiting the quantity of notes, students cannot simply judge all the material as equally important and just write down everything.  They must decide what is essential.

For me, that assessment is helpful for student learning.  However, that is not the primary reason for allowing notes.  I let students bring in notes because it sends a clear message (to the students AND to me) that I am not going to test them on memorization.  How can I test memorization if they have notes?  This puts an obvious burden on me to come up with reasonable questions that go beyond memorization.  I have often said that I never learned how to write good test questions until I began to allow students to have notes.  That step forced me to come up with better questions, ones requiring student understanding that went deeper than memorization.  When I look back on my evolution as a teacher, this decision to allow notes was a hugely important step.  Student learning improved because I began to challenge them with better questions. 

Try it once – see if it works for you.

(2) – Testing Circle – Every semester, during the last class before our first test, I spend 5 minutes talking with my students about my “testing circle.”  I draw a big circle on the board and tell them, “This represents everything we have discussed this semester to date.  I keep good records.  I know the topics our class has examined.  I will write about 1/3 of the test questions directly from this material because it covers what we talked about in class.  I want to see if you were here and awake, that you paid attention and understood.   If you get these questions correct, then you must have followed the daily conversation with a basic degree of understanding.  That strikes me as approaching average work which is evidence that you are getting close to a C.”

I then draw an X roughly 3 inches outside of the circle and explain, “This X represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage but go beyond what we analyzed in class.  I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex.  It will take analysis and thinking but you can do it.  If you understand the class material well enough, you can use that fundamental knowledge to figure out legitimate answers for this second group of questions.  To me, success at this level starts to look like Good work and begins to show me that you might deserve a B (or, at least, you are heading that way).  It indicates that you can make use of your knowledge and that is important to me.”

I then draw an X roughly 12 inches outside the circle.  “This final X again represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage, but they are more complex.  They will require an excellent understanding and thinking to determine the key elements of that connection so that you can come up with a solution.  I do not know that anyone can get them all correct, but I want to see if you can solve some of these questions because that starts to feel like Excellent and Outstanding work.  That level of understanding begins to show me that you are capable of earning an A.  Virtually every practice question I have sent to you by email this semester was either a B level or an A level question.  I took what we had done in class and tried to show you how that basic knowledge could be extended to solve more complicated issues.”

Once again, I am stressing that I have little interest in memorization.  I am also doing something that I am not sure enough teachers do.  I am showing the students visually what critical thinking is and why it is important.  We talk a lot about critical thinking in education but few students seem to have any clue what it is and why it is important.  That to me is a serious weakness of much of college education.  We say we are doing it but we do not even explain what it is.  For me, critical thinking is developing a level of understanding that is so solid that the student can use it as the foundation to solve questions and issues that are ever more complicated.  

I often tell my students that the course will never be finished until they can solve all the possible problems based on their own knowledge and, therefore, have no further need of me. 

(3) - Answer Sheets – For me, every test has two purposes:  (1) to help assess the students’ knowledge for grading purposes and (2) to improve the students’ understanding so they will do better in coming classes and on the next examination.   I believe students should show improvement on every subsequent examination. 

Consequently, I email my students an answer sheet within a few hours of every exam.   Not surprisingly, that is the time they are most interested in (a) the knowledge they needed to know and (b) how I wanted them to attack and answer each question.   Students will often pour over answer sheets with more intensity than they ever invest in the class.  They focus their attention like a laser on any questions they miss.  For me, that has always seemed like the perfect moment for improving student knowledge and that is what an answer sheet encourages.  I often have more interesting conversations about the answer sheets than I do about class material.  

For each test, I type up an answer sheet that starts with, “Here is how I would have looked at each question.  Here is how I would have started building an answer.   Here is the answer that I hope you were able to derive.”   No matter how complicated the question, I want the answers to seem logical and sequential.  Education is often the taking of a seemingly random and confused bunch of information and organizing it into knowledge that is logical and sequential.

Of course, there is a troubling disadvantage with distributing answer sheets—you cannot reuse test questions semester after semester.  The questions and answers are “out there” in the student world.   I know this is probably sacrilegious to say but I think teachers should write new questions for each semester.  The old questions become stale and dated.  New questions help keep you focused on what you want your students to know.  Like exercise, the writing of test questions is not fun but it is good for you.     

Answer sheets can help the students.   Again, try it once and see if it works.

Fourth Tip:   And, here is a fourth tip absolutely free of charge.  Send the answer sheets you use one semester to your students the next semester.  Once again, that will help them see that you are not asking for any memorization.  The answer sheets will show them what you mean when you say,  "I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex."  Students often believe a teacher is bluffing until they see evidence.   At that point, they will forget about memorization and start looking for ways to use the knowledge they have attained.

None of these ideas is perfect.  I can see potential flaws easily enough.  Nevertheless, in my own personal experience, they have each helped my students develop stronger and deeper learning.  If you are looking to experiment in your teaching, testing is an excellent place to start.  I think you will find opportunities for quick improvement.

When done well, your questions and answers can have a positive effect on the knowledge and understanding of your students.  Better testing can make for better learning.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


(NOTE:   This is my 269th posting on this blog.   Over the years, the writings have never really varied.  They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world--maybe the most important.  We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.

I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year.  If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at   I will not email you for other reasons – I respect your privacy.  I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.   

And, as a wonderful new school year begins, THANKS to everyone who reads these blog essays and spends some serious time thinking about teaching!!!)

In 12 days, I begin my 48th year in the classroom.   As always, I am looking forward to the challenge, to the fun of going into class and trying to help all my students learn, think, and understand.  I hope you are at least half as excited as I am about the possibilities that come from the beginning of a new academic year.   It is a great time to be enthusiastic.

I have two classes of juniors and one class of sophomores.  Over the summer, I have emailed the sophomores about six times and the juniors eleven.   Seems like overkill doesn’t it?  

Why have I written to the students so often?  Am I trying to drive them crazy or scare them to death???   Well, I will come back to my rationale, but first a story.

Yesterday, I was sitting at a coffee shop near our campus talking with a dear friend about teaching.   I posed a question to her that I want to ask you.   “I believe if you take all the great teachers you’ve ever known and think about how they taught, you’ll discover they have at least one thing in common.   They all demonstrate this one thing.   I don’t think it alone makes anyone a great teacher but, without it, I don’t think you have any chance at all of being great.  What do you think that one thing is?  Think about the great teachers you have known.  How were they alike?” 
Okay, obviously, I want each of my readers to stop right here and consider the question.   What characteristic do all great teachers have?   I think this is truly important because it forces you to consider the question for yourself.   Don’t just listen to what I have to say.  I might be full of nonsense.  What do you think? 
My friend and I discussed the question generally for a while until she turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready to hear what you think.   You clearly have an answer that you like so convince me that you are correct.”  

My answer is this.   And, this is the basic reason for sending so many emails to my students before I even meet them.   I believe no teacher can be great unless the students have a deeply held faith in the teacher and the teacher’s abilities.  Few students are ever going to do their best work unless they have faith that they are not wasting their time.  Think of the great teachers you have had and ask yourself whether they were able to establish a high degree of student faith.  I am betting the answer is Yes.  “This person really can teach me something worth knowing.”  Here at the beginning of the semester, if you can begin to establish student faith, you open up the potential for a truly great semester.  This is the perfect moment to consider the issue.

Well, this raises a more complex question, what do I mean by “student faith?”   This is not a religious experience where you walk in and simply ask the students to have faith in you.   What is it?

Here’s how I view the creation of a student’s faith in a teacher.

First, students have to have some understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.  How is the course organized and what are your goals?   Without that, you are just asking for blind faith.  “Trust me because I am the teacher” is going to get you few converts in 2018.  Students don’t want to see a day-by-day outline of the course but they need a general idea of how you work and what you are trying to achieve.  Confusion does not inspire faith.

Second, and this relates directly to the first requirement, students have to believe that you have the ability to achieve your goals.   When I was in college, I had a number of teachers who started the first day telling us about the wonderful things that were going to happen during the semester.  However, within a week or so, it became obvious that the teacher simply did not know how to attain those objectives.  If you promise the moon, you better be able to show them how you are going to get them together to make the voyage.  Promises alone mean nothing.  In fact, promises alone are just irritating.

Third, students must be shown why the goals you have established are important and attainable.  Why should my students want to learn this stuff?  Students are human beings.   If you can show them that work has value, they will likely do the work.   If you cannot show them that work has value, why would many of them ever do anything?   This is common sense.  

Fourth, the students must believe that you will be fair in everything you do with the students, especially the grading.   Teachers can be easy and students will adapt.   Teachers can be hard and students will adapt.   But, if students come to believe you are not fair, they will never adapt to you and what you are trying to do.

Why all the emails to my students over the summer?   In my never subtle way, I am trying to answer four questions for them.

(1) – What are my goals?   What am I trying to accomplish? 
(2) – How am I going to get every member of the class to reach those goals?
(3) – Why is the work worth the effort?
(4) – How am I going to treat them so that I am absolutely fair to everyone?

If I can come up with satisfactory answers to those questions before I meet them, I have a chance to establish student faith in me and what I hope to accomplish.   I believe that creates the foundation for the construction of a great class.  Without that faith, it is going to be a long, tough semester.

A new semester is beginning.   It’s a good time to address these four questions with your students.  Build their faith.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I email my students occasionally over the summer to help them get into a good mood for a great semester.   I teach accounting.   A lot of my students start out with terrible attitudes.  That misery can be contagious.  

“This is going to be so boring.”
“I’m going to hate this.”
“This stuff is utterly useless.” 
“I’d rather be eaten slowly by ants than take this course.”  

Great teaching is impossible if students cling to that type of attitude.  I simply cannot ignore the negative assumptions running through my students’ heads.  I know they are there.  Although my summer emails have a lot of different goals, a main one is just helping the students develop a proper attitude about the upcoming course. 

Here is an email that I sent out to my fall students today (actually about 20 minutes ago).

To:   Accounting Students (for the fall semester)

From:   JH

I read a lot.   It helps keep me from getting too old too fast.   Occasionally, I read something that I want to share with my students (you).   It could be about school or business or life or learning or corn flakes or whatever.   Usually, I simply think, “Wow, this might help some of my students in some interesting way.”  After 47 years of working with people exactly your age, I’d like to think I have some knowledge of what might be beneficial.  

The words that caught my attention this morning came from Samuel Goldwyn.   In case you don’t know the name, this bio sentence comes from Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge):   “He was most well known for being the founding contributor and executive of several motion picture studios in Hollywood.”  In other words, he produced a lot of great movies.

Here is the quote that got me thinking this morning.  I liked it because I could not agree more.   
         “No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life.”

Our class begins in exactly 50 days (not that I’m counting).  As far as I’m concerned, your “work” is this class and learning as much as possible.  I receive questions frequently from students asking how to do well.  One important piece of advice is to be enthusiastic.   By that, I simply mean that you should walk in the first day with a positive attitude, one approaching excitement.  You want to have a positive feeling about the class, the material, and yourself.   “This is going to be a great experience and I am going to do my best.”  That’s it.  At the start of every class, I’ll gladly settle for a little enthusiasm like that.  Write it on the cover of your notebook.   

I have no interest in watching you look miserable.  That brings me no delight.  I don’t care about your smarts.  I don’t care about your GPA or anything like that.  However, I will simply be delighted if you bring some enthusiasm with you on August 27.  Don’t try to impress me by seeing how bored you can look.  

I cannot guarantee an A.   Things don’t work that way.   I can guarantee that if you have enthusiasm, you should be able to maximize your grade.  And, you WILL maximize your enjoyment.  You will maximize what you learn and understand.   You will feel better about the class and about the material and about yourself.   A little enthusiasm (I don’t need a lot) invariably leads to nothing but good things.

What do I mean by enthusiasm?  That is simple.  Here are three components.
--Be willing to do what I ask you to do without seeking shortcuts.   If I ask you to work four problems, you can’t just work two and quit.  You can’t just copy someone else’s answer.  The biggest problem that average students have is that they will procrastinate and then have to cut corners.  All they are doing is hoping for a C.  Be more enthusiastic than that.
--Come by my office to ask questions when you are confused.   Being willing to accept confusion is a perfect indication of no enthusiasm.  In class, my response to “I just couldn’t get this to work,” is always, “Why didn’t you come see me?”
--Manage to stay engaged for all 50 minutes of each class session and not just 25 minutes.  Daydreaming for 25 minutes is 100 percent a lack of enthusiasm.

That’s it – enthusiasm in three components.  In return, here’s what I offer.

I promise that I will be enthusiastic.   I will prepare for every single class.   I will not take shortcuts.  I will do my best to make this class fun, interesting, rewarding, challenging, intriguing, and inspiring.   But that is just my half.  Unless you are trying to waste your valuable time, you have to bring your own enthusiasm to the class. 

It is not my responsibility to make you enthusiastic.   Your attitude is your responsibility.   If you simply assume that this course material is “useless,” “hard,” “boring,” and “confusing,” then you are undermining your own attitude and your own enthusiasm and your own enjoyment and your own success.

What do I want you to do between now and August 27?   Work on a positive attitude.   This course can be the greatest class you have ever taken.   But that will NOT happen if you lack enthusiasm.   During the fall semester, I want you to maximize learning, enjoyment, and, of course, your grade.   Those goals do not begin with me.   They begin with you and your ability to get a little excited about the upcoming semester.

Okay, blog readers, it is time for you to do a little work.   I’m a big believer that if you want to get better at something, you should dissect it and study its parts.   This email is long and winding.   What all am I trying to accomplish?  Here is your assignment.   Write down 10 specific things that I hope to accomplish with this email – both through the tone and content.   There are a lot of motivational/guidance things going on here – what do you see?  You don’t have to agree with me but I think it is beneficial to take this letter apart sentence by sentence and see what I am trying to do.  

Then, pick out the 2 or 3 things that you like the most and ask yourself how you can do them.   As I have often written on this blog, I am not trying to clone you into being me.   I’m trying to help you think about teaching, learning, and students so you can become a better you.   I think identifying 10 things I’m trying to accomplish in this email is a good exercise.  Then, picking 2 or 3 that appeal to you especially and consider how you can convey that same message to your students.

Sunday, June 10, 2018


NOTE:   This is my 267th posting on this blog.   Over all the years, the writings have never really varied.  They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world.  We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.

I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year.  If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at   I will not email you for any other reason – I respect your privacy.  I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.  

Over the years, these 267 postings have had 450,644 page views (as of two minutes ago).   That is approximately 450,000 more than I expected when I first began writing.  Periodically, I feel a need to thank everyone who has read these postings, who has emailed me with comments/questions/suggestions, and who has passed along these thoughts to their colleagues.  Spread the word.   As teachers, we have a responsibility to share ideas about motivating and guiding students.  College education can and should get better every day.  Sharing thoughts is an important aspect of that evolution.  (Start your own blog, for example.)

In case you are interested, here are the individual essays in this blog that have had the most page views over the years.
--What Do We Add?   July 22, 2010
--What Is the Purpose of a Final Examination?   May 12, 2010
--The Most Important Days of the Semester    October 1, 2017
--Thinking About Teaching – How Do We Get Them Excited?    December 7, 2015
--Two Words for Better Teaching    January 7, 2015
--Be Daring   September 14, 2015

When I talk with college teachers, I often notice that some tend to define themselves by what they believe they cannot do.  “I cannot be a great teacher.”  “I cannot make this material interesting.”  “I cannot get my students to participate in class.”  “I cannot get the students to think.”  “I cannot convince students that this material is important.” 

These teachers are frustrated.  That is why they tend to focus on “I cannot.”   Nevertheless, I am not sure how this mindset is beneficial.  Dwelling on what you believe you cannot do is of no help to either you or your students.  A good way to improve your teaching is to identify one basic goal that you CAN achieve and then begin the task of making that happen.  As you get better in any one area, I suspect that your overall teaching will begin to improve.   The many, varied components of teaching are interconnected.   Get better at one thing and many other aspects of your teaching will also show improvement.

Okay, the next roadblock is that teachers tell me, “When it comes to improvement, I don’t even know where to start.”  Change can be difficult to initiate.  So, let me provide a suggestion.  It is summer time.  Hopefully, you have a bit more time to consider how to make good things happen in your upcoming classes.

After a semester is complete, I frequently get an email or two from students with a kind (but vague) message.  “Thanks for a great semester.”  “I learned a lot in your class.”  “I appreciate all of your help.”   I never fail to be grateful to any student who takes time to provide feedback in a positive manner.  

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my spring-semester students.  The note really made me stop and think because it was more specific.  This student is from China and had worked hard in my class.  She did not thank me for a great semester or for my assistance.  She did not mention learning a lot.  In fact, she wrote virtually nothing about the subject itself.  

She had a different type of observation, “I hope that I can pursue things in my life with the same passion as you have for educating your students.”  Over my 47 years in this business, I don’t think any previous student has ever said anything like that to me.   She had come to see that I really did care about my students so that I genuinely wanted them to learn.   She hoped eventually to find that same passion for things in her life.  Maybe, I began to think, she had identified a foundation step for becoming a better teacher.

Simple question – do your students think you teach purely to earn money?   Or, do they believe you have a passion for helping them to learn?   Be honest – how much passion for teaching would your students say that you have?  A lot?  A little?  Almost none?  That is an interesting question to ponder.  Moreover, here is an aspect of teaching where you can get away from “I cannot.”  There is nothing to keep you from demonstrating an intense desire for each of your students to learn.  That does not require a particular talent.   If students believe you want them to learn, I believe they will be more likely to do the work that you ask of them.   If they don’t believe you care about their learning, then why should they do more than the absolute minimum that is required?  I had teachers in college who clearly did not care if I learned one iota and my feelings quickly came to mirror theirs.  

We all get frustrated as teachers.  There might be a lot of things about teaching where “I cannot” feels like the appropriate answer.  But, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot demonstrate a genuine passion for educating your students.  And, that passion might be the first step in making a lot of other things about your teaching start to improve.  If you show a belief in the importance of education, I believe many of your students will respond with more effort than you might imagine.

How do you convince your students that you have a passion for their learning of the subject matter?   Let me give you a couple of tips.   I am sure we could list 20 more tips but these four will get you started on convincing students that you have a passion for their learning.

Tip 1 – You cannot fake it.  Students can sense when you try to create a false enthusiasm for the learning of course material.  You actually have to want each student (from the best to the worst) to learn what you are teaching.  If you really don’t care, why should they?

Try this.  About every 2-3 weeks during each semester, take your grade book and slowly read each name and pause.  If your classes are small enough, picture the person in your mind.   You want to think of every student as an individual person and not simply as a member of the herd.   I usually look at their grades to date and try to decide whether that person is living up to his or her potential.  I want to remind myself that I am working with distinct human beings who desperately need a good education (whether they want a good education or not).   It is easy to mentally group students (“good students” and “bad students”), but I want to think of John Doe and Susan Dough as separate individuals and not merely as a part of the mass of humanity sitting in front of me each day in class.  I don’t mean to sound like Mother Teresa, but I do believe she inspired the world because she was not faking it when she talked about caring for each individual person.

Tip 2 – You have to communicate.  As I often say, students cannot read your mind.   You have to tell them and tell them, “Here is what I want you to learn and here is why I want you to learn it.   There is a reason and it is for your benefit.”   As of this afternoon, I have already written 3-4 emails to the students registered for my fall classes that will not begin for three months.  For me, that communication is vital.   Will the students read every word?   Of course not, but all I want is to start building up a sense in them of (a) the importance of the material and (b) my desire to help them learn.  

Of all the things I ever write about teaching, the one that I probably believe is most true is that teachers tend to under-communicate with their students and then wonder why the students don’t do what the teacher expects of them.   Don’t drive them crazy with useless information but make sure you establish a system of essential communication.  Tell them exactly why you want them to learn the material.

Tip 3 – Be willing to be available to help.   If you teach your classes and then go hide, there is no sense that you have a passion for your students to learn.   Again, as I have written previously, you cannot urge them to leap tall buildings in a single bound unless you are willing to stick around and help them learn how to fly.  “Here are my office hours.   If you have a problem, I expect you to be at my office with your questions.  We are in this together.  I want you to succeed.   I am on your side.”  Most students are leery of seeking help from a teacher because it might make them appear stupid or lazy.   Unless the material in your class is easy, most students will need assistance now and then.  That is just a fact of life.  You have to make sure that they know you are ready and willing to answer their questions and provide needed help.  

Tip 4 – Be proactive.  If a student is not doing well in your class, you simply cannot look the other way.   If a student is not preparing for class, if a student is not able to answer simple questions, if a student is skipping class, if a student is doing poorly on quizzes and examinations, you cannot wait for them to seek help.  Many will simply give up and fail.  Before that happens, call them into your office.   Explain your concern.   Ask them, “Is there a problem that I need to know about?   I need to see better work from you before the semester gets away from you.   What can we do to get you on a track toward success?”  If a doctor walks by a bleeding person, the doctor would try to provide assistance.  The doctor would not wait for the person to seek help.  A teacher cannot sit idly by as a student drifts off toward failure.  No teacher can save every student but every teacher can make an effort.  

Want to be a better teacher?   For one semester, try these four tips.   What do you have to lose?   Don’t sit there and simply repeat, “I cannot.”  That doesn’t solve any problems.  There is nothing on this list that you cannot try.  Just see how your teaching might be different.   Convincing students that you really do have a passion for their learning might well be the key that makes other aspects of your teaching grow stronger.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


I recently finished reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.   One of Leonardo’s primary characteristics was that he would grow curious about something (the tongue of a woodpecker, for example, or the swirling pattern of flowing water) and become so obsessed that he would want to learn everything that could be known about the topic.   I think I am picking up that trait when it comes to the secret (or secrets) of great teaching.   It is probably a topic that I could spend a lifetime exploring. 

I posted a blog recently on this site about the secret of great teaching.  My proposition was that great teaching requires great goals.   Any person who wants to become a great teacher (or great at anything else for that matter) needs to establish truly great goals. 

I received several emails from readers ( talking about either great goals or great teaching (or both).  I always love hearing from other teachers.  

After some thought, I want to add a second secret for great teaching.   Here it is:   I think it is virtually impossible to be a great teacher without some effective method of communicating with students (beyond the classroom).  
--I believe you can be a good teacher without an outside method of communications.  
--I believe you can be a great lecturer without an outside method of communications. 
--I believe you can be an extremely popular teacher without an outside method of communications. 

Nevertheless, I do not believe you can be a great teacher without some independent means of communicating with your students.   Great learning requires some amount of interaction beyond the typical 150 classroom minutes per week.  

Although the first class of my fall semester is not for another three months, I have already emailed my new students several times in order to start guiding them toward becoming the students that I want them to be.   If I wait until the first class to begin creating that influence, the battle is probably already lost.   However, if I can give them some hints in advance, if I can provide them with reasons to believe the material is worth learning, if I can assist them in becoming effective learners and successful students, the odds of a great semester skyrocket.   That requires communication that starts well before the class begins.

As an example, I sent the following email to my students this morning.   In it, I want to combine my two teaching secrets—great goals and effective communications.   Notice in the first part, I am trying to help them identify specific goals (rather than dreams) that really will help them improve as students.  In the second part of the note, I am trying to influence their attitudes.   I want them to view the challenging nature of my class as a positive and not as a negative.   In learning, a good attitude can make all the difference in the world.  If a student has the right attitude, this job gets much easier very quickly.

If you have email addresses for your next group of students, what kinds of communications can you use over the summer to help ensure a great fall class?

Email to my students:

(1) – Comment Number One.   I maintain a teaching blog and have done so for years.  I write about teaching and how I believe it should be done.   In my latest posting, I talk about my thoughts on the secret to great teaching.   As I see it, the secret of great teaching is having great goals.  In this essay, I include the following lines, which I thought you might find interesting.   “I am 100 percent sure that it is impossible to be great without great goals.  In fact, I think that is a limitation that students also have.  They have average goals and are then disappointed when they earn average grades.”

As you ponder the upcoming fall semester, do you have (a) great goals, (b) mediocre goals, or (c) no goals at all?   For most students, the answer is somewhere between (b) and (c).   Then, in December when they get their grades, they are frequently disappointed.   “I’m not sure why I didn’t do better,” is a refrain that I hear often.   I suspect one of the reasons is that they simply had no goals that inspired and guided them to do well.  

Okay, I already know the most likely response, “I have a goal of making an A in Professor Hoyle’s class.”   That is NOT a goal.   That is a dream.   To me, that is a real problem for great education.   Students have dreams that they mistake for goals. 

A goal sounds something like this:
--I have a goal of studying 10 hours each and every week in Professor Hoyle’s class.   I’ll keep a diary and see if I make it.   No matter what is happening, I will have no week where I spend under 10 hours in class preparation.
--I have a goal of walking into class with good answers for 75 percent of the assigned problems and adequate answers for 25 percent of the assigned problems.   I will never never never walk into class without a legitimate answer because I will never understand what is happening in class.
--I have a goal of answering any extra assigned problems that come from Professor Hoyle (this is a common occurrence) within 48 hours and immediately going to see him if I cannot get the answer in a reasonable period of time.   If I am still struggling, I’ll ask for an additional problem so I can keep practicing.

Listen, if you just set these three goals right now and stick with them, I think you’ll do great.  I make no guarantees, but these are great goals.   This process is not rocket science.  Do the work.   “I have a goal of making an A” is a dream.   You need to have goals that you can put into actual practice every single day of the semester.

It is not required but if you are interested in reading my posting on great goals, here is the URL:

(2) – Comment Number Two – Back in April, at our Senior Recognition Dinner, I was named “the Most Challenging Professor” for the entire school.   Is that good or bad?   Sometimes, it is hard to tell.

I went to the gym near my house this morning.   On a big sign out front, they had posted this sentence, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”   I realize that most of you will be juniors in college this fall.   For me, college has one major purpose:   To help you make the transition from being a high school student to being a well-adjusted, thoughtful adult.   If you didn’t want to change, if you really wanted to stay a high school kid for the rest of your life, you could have saved a lot of money by not going to college.

Here’s a question that I would like for you to ponder over the summer.   Which of these two statements sounds like you?

--Yeah, within reason, I really do want to be challenged.
--No, I am perfectly content not to be challenged. 

I think you will do better if you walk into my class and honestly say to yourself, “I am no longer a high school student.  I am ready to be challenged.” 

Something to consider:   If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.


My two secrets to great teaching.
--Have great goals that guide and inspire you.
--Set up a system of effective communications with your students so that you have a way to guide and inspire them.