Monday, February 21, 2011

What Keeps Us from Being Great

One of my very favorite words in the English language is “Great.” I just think everyone should decide on a few things in life where they honestly want to shoot to be great. Okay, we may never achieve that greatness but it is hard to get better without a little ambition. And, I believe life just lives better if (a) we know in what ways we would like to become great and (b) we have the satisfaction of going for that greatness. The effort alone will make us better people. (In that regard, I am a big proponent of the Zen expression: “the journey is everything.”)

I simply refuse to believe that settling for mediocrity can prove to be meaningful. For one thing, I believe our students deserve better than that since this is their one shot at a college education.

When I give teaching presentations, I urge the members of the audience to work gradually to become better teachers. That seems like a reasonable goal. And, if we improve year by year, eventually we will get to greatness. In the past, I would then make various suggestions on how to achieve that annual improvement.

Recently, though, I have been considering the idea of greatness from the opposite direction. Maybe, we shouldn’t think so much about how to get there but rather focus on what holds us back. What keeps us (you or me) from becoming better teachers each year? What is the most significant wall that stands in our way? More specifically, over a longer period, what is blocking us from becoming truly great teachers?

I am fortunate that, at my school, I get to work with a very strong teaching faculty. The people with whom I work do a great job of educating our students. But, even the best can get better. Therefore, I posed the following question to my fellow faculty members last year. Basically, the question asks the simple question of what holds each person back from getting better and, hence, stands in the way of our achieving greatness as a teacher. Maybe just contemplating that question is the first step toward greatness.

“Assume that you make the personal decision that, over the next 12 months, you would like to become a slightly better teacher. Maybe it was your Valentine's Day resolution for 2011. Let’s assume, for example, that you currently view yourself as a B teacher and you’d like to feel like a B+ teacher by this day in 2012. Seems like a reasonable goal. My question is this: What would be the most important thing that would keep you from achieving that goal? I’m just looking for one thing but I’ll accept more than one thing. I’m not asking for a lot of thinking—just tell me what comes to your mind right off the top of your head.

“Notice that I didn't ask what keeps most people from getting better over the next 12 months -- I want to know what would keep you from getting better over the next 12 months.”

What was the purpose of this question? That is simple – it seems to me that if we come face to face with the thing that is holding us back we can decide if we really want to be held back in that way. I’m a big believer that self-reflection can make us better (in many, many ways).

So, how would you have answered my question? Be honest with yourself—what is keeping you from being a better teacher over the next 12 months? Once you have identified your own personal wall, you can decide whether you are willing to be limited in that way. Maybe you are but maybe not. You can’t address the wall preventing you from going forward if you never identify it.

Here’s what my colleagues had to say (I’m going to paraphrase these a bit). Maybe some of these apply to you. Maybe they will make you think more about your own teaching and what really does prevent you from getting better over the next 12 months.

I’ll let you guess which one of these I wrote.

1---Lack of willpower to review every lecture carefully before class, when I might tell myself I already know the material well.
2---If something is working (albeit not as successfully as I would like), it is difficult to try something new for fear that it will get worse. That is, my natural reaction is to dig in and do what I’ve been doing more intently rather than make changes that have an uncertain result.
3---The quality of my teaching is directly related to the amount of time that I put into it. It is my opinion that to be an effective teacher most people need just two things: 1.) a real desire to be an effective teacher; and 2.) the willingness to put the time into it that is required. If you are truly committed to being an effective teacher (i.e. you want to improve from a B to a B+), then you’ve met the first criterion. All you really need then is a willingness to put in the time. The time to prepare more for each and every class, the time to meet with students during and outside of office hours, the time to create materials (problem sets, extra questions, study materials, etc.) to supplement the class. So the only thing that really “prevents” me from improving my own teaching is that I don’t put in the extra time. Why not? Every extra hour I devote to teaching is an extra hour I cannot spend on something else. One less hour on research. One less hour on committee/service work. One less hour with my family.
4---I think the lack of feedback that I get from the students on what works and what doesn’t would be the thing.
5---For me, the most difficult part of the teaching process is being able (or maybe willing) to be well prepared for each and every class. When I really prepare, class usually goes well. It is just hard to take the time to be that well prepared on a very consistent basis.
6---I think at this point in my career I have taught so many courses for the first time that I haven’t been able to fully develop any course. It helps me to see what works and then make changes and try different methods. So I would say too many preps too close in time would prevent me from achieving that goal. Also, there is always the issue of finding that perfect balance between the time spent on research and teaching.
7---If I push my students to do better, they will start coming by and asking questions and wanting assistance and I just don’t have the time necessary to do that. I’d really like for them to do better without me having to do any additional work.
8---I am pulled in so many directions and believe if I had more dedicated time to focus on teaching techniques--rather than on completing tasks--then I would be a better teacher.
9---The weight and importance we put on the teaching effectiveness questions found on the student course evaluations in combination with the three-year evaluation window. This greatly reduces my incentive to experiment with new ideas and teaching techniques.
10---I don’t seem to know what I might do to improve or change. Thus, I am not certain how to get better.
11---I have discovered that, for many things in life, the closer you get to the ideal, the more effort it takes to squeeze out the last little bit of excellence. It is easy to be average, quite a bit harder to get to 90%, but that last 10% is harder than the entire first 90%. And the last 5% is harder than the first 95% and so on asymptotically approaching 100% (whatever that is). I have had semesters where I KNOW I wasn’t at my best and I’ve had times that I knew I was close to doing as well as I can do. The truth is that the students don’t really notice – or, more accurately, they don’t appreciate that last 10% as much as they do the first 90%. I put in a good bit of time and energy already and probably get 85-90% of what I’m capable of consistently. On the other hand, reviewers for journals and my scholarly colleagues DO notice that last 5% effort. Similarly, I think my colleagues here do as well when we speak of school and university service work. I’m also confident that my friends and family notice my investments in them as I consider work/life balance. With this in mind, if I have an extra hour or two (my most scarce resource), where do I invest that time (i.e., marginal investment). Should I put it into making improvements to my classroom work (likely to go largely unnoticed) or should I put it into making my scholarship, university or family life better (likely to be noticed and sincerely appreciated)? So, my greatest obstacle to improved teaching is the competing demands and the return I get out of investments in those projects relative to the returns I get from teaching.
12---First -- Lack of knowledge. For example, I would like to help my students write better, but I really don’t know how to do it. Second -- Fear of failure. I’m a B teacher and I have an extremely risk-averse personality. Any change that has the potential to improve the class also has the potential to mess up what is already working reasonably well.
13---My spontaneous answer is not being able to “read” the student’s learning process as well as I would like to. Some students seem to be doing fine when you interact with them but then their exams and assignments disappoints you. Other students seem inactive but they surprise you when they deliver strong exam results and great assignments. Thus, not fully understanding the student’s learning process might be what hinders me from reaching the next level as a lecturer.
14---The way to improve teaching is to know your students just slightly beyond their names (for example, know their major or graduation year or area where they are from…nothing that is especially difficult to find out) because then the teacher can engage them in class because they have become more “real” to you. What will prevent me from doing it is the fact that it is so easy to not do it and it sounds so trivial to be beneficial.
15---For me, the pressure put on the teaching effectiveness questions on the teaching evaluations. I often feel that I am at the mercy of the students and their push-back.
16---It seems that no matter what attempts I make, if it requires the students to “get into it”, they resist. I sometimes feel like we have established an unrealistic, romanticized vision of what our student body is really like. As a result, perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of their intrinsic interest in engaging in the learning process. Or maybe the problem is that I am approaching this the wrong way.
17---I don’t think there is anything in my way other than I don’t listen enough. Sometimes we get into our routine, thinking that what we have done in the past is still as good as it once was – and don’t listen or respond when change is called for. I also have to constantly remind myself that teaching is ONLY about student learning. It doesn’t matter if students like me or don’t, it doesn’t matter if I’ve been fabulously entertaining or not – all that matters is that I have created an environment where they are maximizing their learning.
18---My deficiencies boil down to a small number of root causes. The central of these causes are disorganization and poor time management.

Recognize yourself and your own walls?
What is keeping you from becoming better as a teacher and moving on toward greatness?

Perhaps the first thing you need to do is identify what is holding you back and then deciding whether you want to be held back.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Critical Moment

It seems to me that there are a few moments that are terribly critical in connection with how a student does in your class. Most days are like most other days. However, I think the period of time immediately after the first test is really critical and can make a big difference in how well a student eventually does. As you would imagine, my concern is always with the students who do not do terribly well on that first test. I worry that they will see that low first grade and simply assume that is proof positive that they are dumb so they might as well stop trying. Instead of working to get better, they begin to crawl into a hole and their grade spirals downwards after that.

Or, they will start trying to make random attempts at pushing their grade up without any logical plan and become frustrated by the lack of improvement.

Or, maybe worse still, they will think that I have given up on them and seek less help from me rather than more.

Consequently, I try to provide some relatively immediate help and encouragement to the students who make less than an A or B on my first test. I want them to know that only a small part of their grade has been settled and they can still do well BUT ONLY IF they start making some real improvements. Then, I provide suggestions and point up that I am happy to help.

Humans tend to underrate their abilities. Students often latch on to any bad news (“you made 66 on the first test”) as proof of what they have suspected: They are not really capable of learning this material. I want to dispel that myth as quickly as possible. I want to prod them into making changes. I want to provide some direction for those changes.

I gave my first test in each of my three classes about a week ago. I returned the tests recently and some students did well while others did not. I wasn’t worried about the ones who did well. The taste of success often spurs those students to work harder. A good grade builds confidence. But I wanted to try to get the other students turned around. For that reason, I sent the following email out yesterday to each of my students who made less than a B on my first test. In simple terms, it says “you can do it – don’t give up,” “here are some ways that you can do better,” and “don’t forget that I’m here to help.”

Here is what I actually wrote. Not surprisingly, a number of students have come by my office since that note went out. They had some of their questions answered with just a few minutes of assistance and, subsequently, did much better in our class discussions.

Email – February 17, 2011
“I am only sending this note to my students who made a C or less on our first test. As you and I both know, this grade was only a small part of your grade. There is no reason why you cannot turn your grade into an A or (at least) a B. However, my experience is that students tend to keep their same grades unless they make some changes. Without changes, the first test is a pretty decent indicator of the final grade. And, I don’t like that – I didn’t get into this business to give Cs, Ds, and Fs. I want As and Bs.

“So, what changes can you make? And, I realize that I have already talked with several of you about this. And, even better, several of you have already started to do the following.

“The very best thing you can do to improve your grade (without a doubt) is to come up with 2-4 questions as you prepare for a class: “I don’t understand this.” “I couldn’t figure out how to do that.” “I’m not sure what this question means.” Etc. Then, take 10 minutes (just 10 minutes) and come to my office prior to class and let’s go over those 2-4 questions. Yes, that takes self-discipline on your part but the more you know before class, the more you will learn in class. I have students who come by and see me every single day for about 5-10 minutes. That always helps. Those people tend to do very well.

“The second thing you can do is review the material carefully after class and write out 2-4 questions about the stuff that you still don’t quite get, stuff that doesn’t yet make sense. And, again, come by for 10 minutes and let me help you with that. Sometimes just hearing stuff one more time makes all the difference in the world.

“Students often get scared after one bad grade and come by for one day and ask good questions and then get distracted and never show back up until the next test. Then, they make another bad grade and wonder why they didn’t come by on a regular basis. You are not in a hole yet but if you make another C or less on the next test, you will be in a hole. I want to prevent that. I want you to learn; I want you to do well. I want you to be proud of your effort. I want you to be successful. Come by and see me.

“Here are my scheduled office hours. I am able to come in occasionally at other times but most students can work one of these six times into their schedule.

--8:30 (usually 8:15) until 8:50
--10:00 until 10:20
--12:30 until 1:20
--2:30 until (usually) 3:00

--1:00 until 1:45

--11:00 until 11:45

“I will not come out into the hall and drag you into my office. You are an adult; it is your grade. I expect you to take the initiative. But it is VERY helpful to walk in with your list of questions. That shows you are prepared for the conversation.“

Monday, February 7, 2011

Have We Become Too Nice?

I have often said that I would feel better about college education when students start being more demanding of teachers and administrators by asking pointed questions about the quality of the process. After all, this is likely to be each student’s one shot at a college education -- an experience that will in most cases have an immeasurable impact on the rest of their lives. A well-educated person has an entirely different set of future prospects than a poorly educated person. We all know that, so why don’t students rise up and challenge schools to do a better job? Plus, either the students or their parents (or someone) must pay for this education, the amounts of which can quickly rise to the level of a small fortune and leave students in debt for years.

Most importantly, if we really do believe that the college experience should stimulate critical thinking skills (which virtually every college proudly proclaims as a primary goal), shouldn’t we start by expecting our students to look critically at the quality of the education that is being provided to them. I’ll cheer the day when students stand in front of the administration building yelling “we demand better teachers who will challenge us to think deeply and push us to do the difficult work necessary to make wise use of our talents.”

Consequently, when the opinion editor of the weekly newspaper here at my university started raising questions last week about her education, I paid attention. The starting point for her concerns was the tendency of some professors to give credit for class participation. As we all know, class participation grades are awarded in hopes of pushing students who are often reticent to be more interactive and, therefore, engaged in class.

Here are a few of the points the opinion editor made (in “Silence is precious if you don’t know what you’re talking about” by Liz Monahan in the February 3, 2011, edition of The Collegian).

“I can’t even count the times when a professor has asked for the meaning, theme, plot, scope, format, content or ethical dilemma of a piece of writing, only for a student, who you KNOW hasn’t read the book/article/essay, to raise his or her hand and say something useless.”

“Try calling on your students.”

“Mandating participation doesn’t prepare students for the big bad world. Yes, in the real world, when you have a job and a boss, you will have to do thing you don’t want to, like talk in meetings and give pitches. This is because in the real cruel, cruel world you’ll get fired for saying something that wastes two minutes of your boss’ ‘precious’ time.”

“Mandatory student participation fosters an environment in which students begin to talk without even thinking.”

Okay, I have taught for 40 years but have given participation grades in only one semester and found it did not work for me and dropped it. If you have read this blog for long, you know that I go in and question the student from the start of class to the closing bell. I don’t request participation; I demand participation. But, that is just my style. What works for me won’t work for everyone.

The one part of her essay that concerned me was her contention (which she made over and over) that students could just say anything, regardless of how dumb, and be accepted by the teacher. I find that very troubling (especially at my own school). What is the purpose of college if it is not to show students how to differentiate between bogus arguments and valid arguments? Her assertion that the boss will be upset if his or her time is wasted is legitimate. Why shouldn’t a college professor be just as upset by shallow, unprepared responses? Why can’t a college professor stop a student with a simple question: “Is there any point that you are really trying to make with these ramblings?” Or, as I asked a student recently “are you simply going to keep talking in hopes of stumbling upon a real idea as you go along?”

No one likes confrontation (especially in front of an entire class). No one enjoys making students feel uncomfortable. But, isn’t that a very essential part of our job? As college professors, have we simply become too accepting? And, if we have, are we doing the students a disfavor? Are we allowing our students to avoid doing any serious critical thinking if we accept every spoken thought? If a student says “the world is flat” (which, of course, was often said not too long ago) are we not harming that student’s development by not calling into question the statement as soon as it is made? And, won’t the student be more likely to have a better response the next time if it is obvious that the teacher is not going to allow faulty reasoning to slip through unchallenged?

What is the ultimate result of accepting bad reasoning or unprepared blathering?

I don’t believe the opinion editor actually meant to do this but I think she questioned the very core purpose of a college education. Our role is not to simply convey information to be memorized. Instead, we should be trying to develop a strong thinking process that will allow each student to reason things out for themselves throughout life.

To me, school should be about the development of ideas, the testing of those ideas, and the reshaping of those ideas as more is learned and the basis of the thinking process is challenged. None of that works, though, if the professor is unwilling to say “prove to me that there is a reasonable basis for your assertion or we are going to dismiss it until you can do better.”

I don’t give a participation grade but I have no problem if someone wants to give one. What I have a huge problem with is that we allow our students to get by in class with statements that don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. In fact, I think we do our students a major disservice if we don’t call them out for making statements in class that show a lack of preparation or a sloppiness of thinking.

Maybe we are just getting to be too nice.