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.

Friday, May 11, 2018


The semester is over or ending.   The academic year is over or ending.   It is a great time to pause and consider what you liked and what you didn’t like.   In sports, the teams post wins and losses which makes evaluation easy.  Teachers don’t have the luxury of such a clear-cut scoring process.  Some serious thought is necessary to know how well it all went.  How can it be improved?

In assessing the past year, don’t dwell on either the good or the bad.   Think about the year and celebrate the good stuff and consider what changes might have limited the bad stuff.  Most of us will have another chance to do this all again in the fall.  What can we take away from the past year that will help improve our teaching?   There is nothing to keep us from improving and now is the critical time to consider the changes that will lead to that improvement, especially as you get ready for next fall.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a video interview here on campus.  It was a PR piece.   Some of the questions dealt with my years at the University of Richmond.  Others had to do with my thoughts on teaching.   My favorite question was, “What is the secret to great teaching?”   I had some idea of what the questions were going to be so I had taken a few days to consider my answer.

Before I share my thoughts, I have two questions for you.

First, has anyone ever asked you that question?   Or, have you ever heard anyone directly address that question?   My point is that perhaps we don’t have more great teaching because we never really consider what that means.   Over the years, I have been to many conferences, presentations, and the like about various aspects of teaching, but I do not remember anyone saying, “Let’s talk about great teaching—what does it mean and how do you get there?”   If you have a pedagogy committee at your school, suggest they have that conversation.      

Second, is a more obvious question – how would you personally answer that question?  Before you read my response, how would you have answered a question about the secret to great teaching?   In truth, your opinion ought to be more important to you than hearing what I have to say.  

(This is a pause point while you think of your answer to the second question above.   If you are not willing to come up with an answer, that might indicate that you really don’t care about great teaching.)

Okay, now that you have come up with your answer, here is approximately what I had to say.  

“I am firmly convinced that the secret to great teaching is having great goals.  Great goals will not guarantee great teaching, but I don’t know how anyone can hope to be a great teacher without great goals.   I think too many people have average goals and then wonder why they are not great teachers.   If you have average goals (or possibly no goals), there is no chance of greatness.   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.  That is probably easier to see in our students than it is to see in ourselves.”  

“I write a blog about teaching and I occasionally write about my end-of-semester goals.   On the first day of class, at the middle of the semester, and at the end of the term, I am always shooting for one goal.  It never leaves my mind.   Here it is:   On the last day of the semester, I want to hear my students say, ‘I never thought I could learn so much.  I never thought I would think so deeply.  I never thought I could work so hard.  And it was fun.’  Whatever I accomplish as a teacher, I believe it is because I have those goals firmly in mind and try to make sure everything I do is directed toward achieving them.”

Okay, those are my goals because they work for me.  Between now and next fall, you should identify goals that work for you.  If you have not set great goals, then it is time to do so.   Here at the end of the semester, you have the opportunity to look back and consider what you accomplished.   What goals did you have and were they able to push you toward great teaching?   Before you consider changing your teaching, think about changing your goals.   How could you modify your goals for next fall to push you even closer to great teaching?

I guess that is the point of this essay.  How can you modify your goals to push you closer to great teaching?   It's a question that is worth repeating.

The topic of “great goals” is very interesting to me.  It just seems obvious that you cannot achieve greatness without developing goals that go beyond mediocre.  Start listening as people talk about their goals.

I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal about Arsene Wenger, the manager of the Arsenal soccer team in London, a team that plays in the Premier League.   I know little about soccer as a sport but I do know that fans in Europe take their soccer (“football” as they would call it) seriously.   Wenger is retiring from the Arsenal team after a long and often legendary career.  

What I found interesting was that the article talked about his philosophy as a soccer manager, “I help others express what’s inside them.  I didn’t create anything.   My permanent battle in this job is to draw out what’s beautiful in man.”  

The whole idea works for every teacher but I really liked that last sentence.  Education often seems like Marine training where you want to work the students into exhaustion.  Wenger’s thoughts have a positive feel that is especially appealing to me.   Too often, this past semester, I found myself annoyed at students who would not live up to my extremely high standards.   Perhaps, I needed to think more about drawing out the best in them.   I’m not ready to abandon my “think, learn, work” goals but maybe they need some modification.  When the learning process is working perfectly, when a student is beginning to catch on, it truly is beautiful to behold.   I want more of that beauty.   And, I want to fully appreciate it when it happens.

So, even if I don’t change my goals, I am going to try paying more attention to the beautiful elements of being a teacher.   It is way too easy to stay annoyed at students who don’t always work as hard as I would wish.   Teachers do not have to be perpetually irritated.   Perhaps, as I tackle this job again in the fall, I will be better able to move toward great teaching if my goals push me to pay more attention to the beautiful side of this whole teaching process.   That is going to be an adjustment to my goals for the fall – to better see the beauty of being a college teacher.  

But, that is me and is not really relevant to you.   How are you going to modify your goals so they will be great enough to push you closer to great teaching?

Saturday, March 31, 2018


The spring semester is rapidly ending.  I have little time left to work with my current group of students.   I always want every semester to end on a surge of energy.   Especially in the spring, classes can drift into mass lethargy where everyone just begins to go through the motions.  Education is too important for that conclusion.   Everything goes better when it ends with enthusiasm.

Recently, I emailed all my students in hopes of encouraging them to redouble their efforts even as spring began to warm the earth and flowers began to appear.   I am trying to establish a strong mindset here at the end of the semester.   They are young and strong.   With the right mindset, they still have time to move mountains.  I have a motto, "if you are not dead, things can always get better."

Here is the email I sent to my spring students.

We have four weeks left in the semester – roughly 12 hours that we will be together.   It’s not much time but it is enough time to push that grade up.

Let me make a suggestion.

I listen to books on CDs as I drive around town.   A few years ago, I was listening to an audiobook in my car:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   It is long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here.    However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control of her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother).  She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery.  With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them successfully.

One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point.  In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled my car over to the side of the road so I could write it down. 

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”  For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I have read recently.  The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months.  And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word “Fear” for other words such as “Joy,” “Excitement,” “Hate,” “Love,” and “Success.”   We are very much a product of the stories that we tell ourselves.   I believe that.

We have four weeks left in this semester.   My guess is that all of you would like to finish strong so you can learn the material and make the highest grade possible. 

What is holding you back from reaching your potential?   I suspect a large barrier to your desired level of success is a list of the stories that you tell yourself about this class.   Be honest – what stories linger in the back of your mind about this class?   Which of these sound like you?

--I’m not as smart as the other students.
--I’m just not very good with numbers.
--I’m tired of being a student so I’m going to coast out with as little work as possible.
--I prefer to sit and listen and this teacher keeps asking me questions, which is annoying.
--I’m good at memorizing.   I am not very good at thinking.
--The class is in the morning and I am not a morning person.
--I’ve got other classes that take up much of my time.
--I am never going to need to know this material so why waste my time.
--I don’t really know what I want to do in life so why spend so much time on this course.
--I want to have fun with my friends and don’t want to waste time on this class.   College is for fun.
--I’m really terribly shy and don’t like to speak in class.
--I always seem to know the material until I get to a test and then I panic and make stupid mistakes.
--No one really cares if I make above a C.   Mediocre is good enough.

And, all of those are absolute nonsense.  They are designed to hold you back.   They are designed to give you a dull, mediocre life.   They are designed to take you off the hook and have an excuse to be lazy.   Those are the wrong stories.  They will never lead to success in anything.  That mindset makes you an average person.   You are smarter than that.  Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results.   I cannot guarantee that you’ll make 110 on our third test but I honestly believe you will do better.

What stories should you be telling yourself?

--I will be the best prepared person in class next week.   I will analyze every question in advance and be ready with an answer.   I might not be able to do this for an entire semester but I can do it for the next week.
--I will write down questions in class that I don’t understand and go ask the teacher immediately.   He is paid to teach so let him earn his money.
--I will enjoy the energy and excitement of the class discussions.  I will look forward to this class. 
--I will pray that the teacher calls on me in class because I am ready to be a leader.
--I will work the extra class problems as soon as I get them.
--I will start keeping a diary of the amount of time I spend studying each day just to see if I can slowly raise that average.
--I will not worry about whether the material will ever be important.   I will learn it just for the sheer joy of adding knowledge to my head. 
--I will be better at time management so that I am ready for every class and can still have time to enjoy life outside of class.

I simply believe you will do better if you have better stories.   Positive stories create positive results.  You have to have stories that give you the strength to do the work now and do it well.   You have to overcome the bad stories.

That is not easy.   I fully understand.   But better stories really do make for better students.

I have an odd photo here at my house.  It is taped to my wall near my computer.   It is a photo of the cover of a notebook.   It was given to me by a student who did very well in my course about a year ago.   After the semester was over, she sent me the photo and explained, “I wrote this on the cover of my course notebook on the first day of the semester and I looked at it long and hard every day for the entire semester.”

On the notebook, she had written just four words:

“I want it more.”

She told herself the right story and she did very well.  She truly did succeed.

Monday, March 26, 2018


I often think about teaching in comparison to being a coach.  Both teachers and coaches work with a group of people in hopes that those people will accomplish some task particularly well (often under pressure).   There is an ongoing learning experience where individuals in both groups gradually improve (hopefully) over time.   In each case, the whole process culminates in some type of test – sports teams play a game that they hope to win whereas students take an examination where they hope to excel.   In sports, the coach is trying to maximize the team’s chances for a victory.   In education, the teacher is trying to maximize the amount of every student’s understanding so that each person can do as well on the exam as possible.  

I spent my weekend writing a long, complex test for 41 of my students.   I know it will be a challenge to each one.   There is nothing easy about any of these questions but they have worked hard and they are capable of success.  I would really like to maximize the chances for success.

When I finished writing the test, I decided to sit down to watch a little bit of the basketball games in March Madness.   It is hard to avoid these games at this time of the year.

As I watched the teams play, I was struck by how much time and energy the coaches had expended in hopes of getting each player to do their very best.  The best coaches seemed to have taken nothing for granted.   They had done everything possible to help the players perform well.  Hmm, I found that interesting – they had done everything possible to help the players perform well.   Had I done as much for my own students?

I started thinking about my students and the test that they were surely preparing for at that moment.  We had spent an enormous amount of time working on the material but I wasn’t sure that I had helped them to be as psychologically prepared for the test as possible.   Is that my role?   Am I purely a teacher of material?   Or, if I want my students to really do well, do I have more of an obligation than that?  

One of the things I don’t like about testing is that it tends to put the teacher in an adversarial relationship with the students.   We are the coach but we are also the judge and that creates a bit of separation in the minds of both parties.   I’ve always wanted my students to know I was on their side.   I think that helps their learning.

After the last game was over last night, I decided that there really was a little bit more that I could do for my students to help them do their best on the test today.  Instead of going to bed, I wrote them one final email, not about the subject matter but rather about doing their best.   I imagine that a great basketball coach might have done something like this.   And, in all seriousness, are those games on television one bit more important than the success of your own students?  You might disagree but I think not.   One of the first steps in being a better teacher is to recognize the importance of your role and in doing it as well as you possibly can.

Here is the email that I sent out.  I have no idea whether it increased anyone’s grade even one point but, for me, it was worth a try.   At least, I wanted my students to know that I was cheering for them.  I did truly want them to do well.   Before your next test, you might try something similar.   If nothing else, I think it is good for the student-teacher relationship for them to know that you really do want them to learn and succeed.

To my students:

You will have your second test in roughly 12 - 13 hours.   I know I have said all of this before but I want to say it again as you mentally prepare yourself for the battle.

Most importantly, I doubt seriously that I am going to ask you anything that is not already in your head.   Seriously, I wrote each question with one comment to myself, "I think this is in their heads -- it is not really impossible/bizarre/unworkable.  I think they'll know this."  

So, I think the whole key to the test is getting the material out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.   That's all I want you to worry about in these last few hours -- getting the knowledge out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.  

To do that, you know what I'm going to recommend first -- get a normal night's sleep.   Being tired is one of the worst things you can do on a difficult test.   No one functions well when they are tired.   If you normally get 7 hours of sleep, then go for 7 hours of sleep.

Second, stay calm.   I know the questions are going to look bizarre at first.  Take a deep breath and tell yourself, "he wrote these questions knowing us and believing that we can work them.  Getting rattled is not going to help.  Let me read it carefully."  

Third, have confidence.   You are bright people who have made your way into this university, into this school, and into this class.   That didn't happen by accident.   Yes, the material is complicated but it is not that complicated.   Don't blow it out of all proportions.

Fourth, keep your concentration.   I always tell my students, "if the building catches on fire, you don't want to notice until some fireman picks you up and carries you from the room."    I don't care what happens in room 223 tomorrow morning, nothing but that test should make any difference to you.

Fifth, if you get stuck on a question, don't waste a lot of time on it.   Go find another question that you might know better and come back to the "stuck" question at the end of the time.  

Finally, be careful.   I'm always shocked/dismayed by how many points great students just throw away by doing careless things.   If you don't know a question, that's fine, I can live with that.   But don't just hand over points by making careless errors.  

I know you (not the person beside you but YOU) are capable of doing great.   I'll be cheering for you!!!!!!   Go get it!!!!!    Make it happen!!!!!!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I had lunch with a friend recently who asked what I had learned from nearly 47 years in college teaching.   My initial answer was trivial (but possibly true), “Well, I certainly have learned you never get paid enough in this job.”  Later, as I thought about it more deeply, I came up with what I thought was a more appropriate answer.   Because I like ranking things, I decided to put it into a “David Letterman Style Top Ten Countdown” list.  Not sure why but I seem to think better when I am using lists with a ranking.  It makes me more observant or thoughtful.

Your mission, Mr. Phelps, if you decide to accept it (as they say on Mission Impossible) is to decide how your list would differ from mine.  We all work in different teaching situations.   How would your list look?  What have you learned from your years of teaching?

Here goes – the top ten things I have learned about college teaching after nearly 47 years on the job.

Number Ten – You always have to prepare for class.   I taught my first class in August of 1971.  If you had told me that first day how much time I would still need to invest to get ready for my classes in 2018, I would have been stunned.   I assumed that preparation would get easier over the years.   But, if you want a class session to go well, you simply have to be the best prepared person in the room.  There are no shortcuts.  The class has to feel fresh and that requires preparation time--not once in awhile but every time.  Here is a piece of personal advice:   When you are no longer willing to prepare adequately, it might be time to consider retirement or a new career.

Number Nine – If possible, engage all of your students every day.   Don’t let students sit around like stumps.  If you do, they will just daydream.  Ten percent of your students are dying to participate.  The challenge is getting the other 90 percent involved.  For years, teachers have let those other 90 percent slide.  They fully expect you to do the same.   Don’t!!!  I call on every student once or twice every day.   I want them walking in knowing that they will need to be actively involved.   How do you get all of your students engaged with the material?  That is aood question for each of us to address.  Class should not look like a movie theater where the audience sits passively and watches.   That misses completely the excitement of the learning experience.

Number Eight – Students rarely change over the years.  In 1958, I heard my sixth grade teacher tell another teacher, “Students today cannot read and comprehend.   They have to have everything explained to them.”  I literally heard almost those same words last week right outside my office.   Comparing finished students from previous years to your current students-in-process is not fair.  All students come into a semester uneducated and go out the other end educated if you guide them well.   Dismissing them as being inferior to previous generations creates a tension in your attitude that is not helpful.  You will start resenting your current students.  That sets up a roadblock to your own success.  I know some readers (maybe many) are going to write and tell me that I am wrong, that students in 2018 are not as good as they used to be.   I think your memory is playing tricks on you.  More importantly, I don’t that attitude helps you become a great teacher.

Number Seven – Memorization is not the goal of good education.  I cannot think of very many things that my students need to memorize—probably none.   Unless you can justify it, never ask students to memorize and never test them on their memory.   That just gives education a bad reputation.  Figure out a better goal – I always argue that understanding and critical thinking are the two things I want to accomplish.   Memorization has little place in that learning process. 

Number Six – Testing and grading have to tie in directly with your goals for the class.  The connection has to be clear.  If your goal is the development of critical thinking, then you must test/grade on the student’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking.   If you stress one thing in class and then test something else (memory, for example), you are going to (a) confuse your students and (b) irritate your students and (c) not accomplish your goal.

Number Five – Early in my career, I heard a professional football coach claim, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”  I liked that philosophy 47 years ago.   I like it equally as well today.   It is easy to claim that students are lazy or have no ambition.   I disagree.  I think at their very core most students want the teacher to get behind them and push them toward greatness.   Many of them might require an awful lot of pushing but they will thank you for it in the end.   I find this philosopht an interesting view of human nature.  I might actually prefer some other view.   However, that perspective has served as a foundation for much of my teaching.  Furthermore, few victories are as emotionally rewarding as pushing a poor student into being a great student.  When that happens, you know why you became a teacher.

Number Four – In this blog, I have often talked about the importance of helping students understand that they leave class each day with Swiss cheese knowledge – it looks solid but it is full of holes.  Student success depends on their ability to fill in those holes.   A book I read recently (I think it was Make It Stick) argues that students over-estimate what they know as they are leaving class every day.   I have a slightly different take.   I think students know that their knowledge is full of holes.  However, I think they under-estimate how much work it will require to fill in those holes.  To them, it is a casual concern rather than an urgent issue.  Teachers tend to make the material look learnable in class so students assume they can get it figured out.  That is why students often wait until the night before a test to try to put everything together.  By that time, there are just too many holes and they are way too big.  Teachers need to help students immediately start filling those holes as quickly as possible after each class.

Number Three – Nothing is ever going to go really well in a class unless the students have faith in the teacher.   Why should they work so hard if they don’t trust the teacher’s ability?  From Day One, you have to send a subtle message to the students, “I am going to ask an awful lot of you this semester but I am going to push you to learn this complicated material and be successful.  Have enough faith so that you will do what I ask.  If you do that, I will help you learn more than you ever thought possible.”   I have never seen a study of this but I have often thought that the amount (or depth) of student learning correlates directly with how much faith students have in their professor as teacher.

Number Two – At the very heart of great teaching is clear and understandable communications.   Students cannot read your mind.   If you want to guide them to success, you have to establish a method of communication that works for you and works for them.   Helping students to work efficiently and learn complex material cannot be accomplished through telepathy.  I use email.  I always say that my teaching improved dramatically when email became common.  I then had a way of conversing with my students beyond the first minute or two of class.  I email my students 5-12 times each week throughout the semester.   You might think that is obsessive (I might think that is obsessive).   However, I prefer to call that a strong level of communication that helps my students keep charging forward at a brisk pace and in the right direction.  It allows me to guide and enables me to motivate.   I can tell the students what they need to do and why.  Open and adequate communications are necessary for a strong marriage and for excellent teaching.

And, Number One on my list of things I have learned about teaching.   If you have read my blog for long, you already know what Number One is because it is always Number One for me.  I think great teaching starts when you can convince your students to be adequately prepared when they walk into class.   If they have done a sufficient amount of work in advance of class, then you can use the class time to heal the sick and raise the dead.  In other words, you can create miracles.   However, if the students are not adequately prepared, there is little you can do but lecture to them and have them take notes.  The difference between a wonderful class and a trivial class is student preparation.  Think about your classes right now.   What if every student spent an extra hour in serious preparation before each class.   Wouldn’t the level of discussion and learning simply skyrocket?  Too many students walk into class knowing nothing and end up wondering why they have trouble learning.   In my world, get the students to prepare adequately and your teaching will begin to rise wonderfully.

That is my ten.   However, I wanted a different perspective.   For many years, my brother was an outstanding middle school teacher and principal.   I posed the same question to him, “What did you learn from your years of teaching?”   I liked his response.  “You have to prove to students that you are going to be fair.  You have to show them every single time you get in front of them that you care about them as students and as people.  You have to live a life outside the classroom that shows them you walk the walk.”

There are obviously a lot of good answers.   Start with my list.   What would you add?   What would you delete?   What have YOU learned from your years in the classroom?   My email address is – let me know how your list would be different from mine.  I would love to hear from you.