Saturday, March 26, 2011

Big Mistakes

This entry on my blog should prove two things: (1) I lead a relatively boring existence and (2) I spend way too much time thinking about teaching.

Yesterday for lunch, I went to a nearby Jimmy John’s Deli and got a sandwich. As I sat there eating it, I pulled out a piece of paper and across the top I wrote: What are the biggest mistakes that college teachers make? I immediately listed out 9 or 10 mistakes that I think college teachers are prone to make, mistakes that prevent them from moving from good to great. Then, I decided to whittle the number down to a “Top Five” list. That was tricky because several of my items appear to be quite prevalent. Finally, about the time I had taken the last bite of my sandwich, I turned my final five into a countdown somewhat like a David Letterman list on late night television. So, straight from Jimmy John’s Deli in Richmond, Virginia, here are my “Top Five Mistakes That College Teachers Make.” If you think I left something off, let me know.

Number Five: Overreliance on Power Point Slides. I never use Power Point slides in my own classes but, if I did, I would make sure to ask a question on the student evaluations each year about whether students liked my usage or not. I understand how they can be very handy (especially since textbook publishers will even create them for you) as a way of organizing material. However, I think they send a message to students that you are simply going to read Power Point slides to them as they sit there in the semi-dark trying to stay awake. Okay, I know that most teachers will say that they throw up the slides and then discuss the material but I have heard way too many students say “that lazy guy just reads Power Point slides to us that he didn’t even take the time to produce.” The way you view the process and the way your students view it may be radically different. Plus, I am not certain that it is easy to use Power Point slides to create active interaction with the students. If the slide provides the information, where is the conversation, where is the student thinking? My recommendation – just ask your students on their evaluations: “Should the professor use Power Point slides more or less or the same amount as now?” If a lot of students say “less,” I would pay serious attention to that advice. If they say “more,” then go for it.

Number Four: Failure to Engage Students with the Material. College teachers often seem to have a belief that students bring an active curiosity and desire to learn with them to class. If (when) that proves false, they appear to be mystified. “Why do they take my class if they don’t want to learn the material?” Well, they must take 30-40 courses to graduate so they have to sign up for something. Over my 40 years in this business, I have had a few students who walked in with an “I am dying to learn all about Intermediate Accounting” attitude. But, a vast majority of them walk in with a neutral attitude; they need to be convinced they are not wasting their time. After spending 80 percent of their lives learning stuff like the state capitals, the periodic table, how to outline a sentence, and the Pythagorean theorem, many students have had the joy of learning mashed out of them before they get to you.

How do you engage students? One possibility is to link the coverage to some personal benefit – how will their lives be better for knowing this material? “Learn it because I say so” doesn’t hold too much power over the young people of today. Or, show the student why you find the material interesting. If you have read this blog for long, you know that I’m a huge proponent of trying to puzzle students. Why is it done this way? What does this accomplish? Why was this action taken? How do these two things fit together? If you simply assume your students are truly curious about the Pythagorean theorem, you may be upset when they fall asleep in class or seem more interested in texting than in learning.

Number Three: Writing Tests that Reward Memorization. We all have heard that the purpose of college is to help develop critical thinking skills. That is a great and worthy goal. But students will learn based on how they expect to be tested. If you base your tests on memorization (“name the four criteria for a capitalized lease”), you can forget about developing critical thinking skills. If you want students to go beyond memorization, your tests have to go beyond memorization. “If the US had not made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, what are possible impacts on the growth of slavery in this country?” Okay, that may lead to an answer that requires some work to grade but it allows students to demonstrate their understanding. If they expect to be tested in a certain way, their learning will be directed in that same way. Textbook publishers often provide test banks. Those questions are primarily designed to test memorization. You set the tone for your entire course by the way you test your students. Work to write thoughtful questions and you will be surprised by how much more thoughtful your students will become.

Number Two: Most Teachers Talk Too Much. Teachers get nervous during silences. They feel uncomfortable. Consequently, they rush in to fill up the quiet with words and words and more words. The less the teacher talks and the more the students talk the better. The teacher should guide the conversation and make sure everyone gets involved. After that, the less said by the teacher the better. However, that is hard to do. The students would much prefer for you to do all the talking because then they can turn their brains off and just write down what you say. Don’t let them play that game with you. Push them to talk. I use the Socratic Method so I call on them in rapid fire fashion but you can push them to talk in many ways. If you have read my Teaching Tips book at you know that I believe in the 50-50 Rule. That is the teacher should never do more than 50 percent of the talking. Push your students to do their 50 percent.

Number One: Failure to Force Students to Be Prepared for Class. In my opinion, the single biggest factor in having a great class is the preparation level of the students. If they are not prepared, what can they possibly add to the class? They can just write down notes. But, when they are well prepared, they can add ideas, suggestions, a different perspective, and the like. A class with well prepared students can be a true joy as the conversation and the thinking range throughout the topics under consideration. To me, that is education at its very best. That is why I became a teacher.

How do you get students to prepare for class? First, I think you have to be very specific as to what you want them to do. Don’t just throw out vague assignments. College students do not do vague very well. They ignore vague. Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Second, make sure the subsequent class actually incorporates that assignment in some way so students do not feel like they were being asked to do busy work. I remember being infuriated in college when I would spend hours on an assignment that was never mentioned by the teacher in any way. I certainly did make that same mistake twice. Third, don’t hesitate to be confrontational if the assignment is not done to your satisfaction. College students are adults. If they had an assignment at a job and did not do it, they would face the wrath of the boss very quickly. You don’t have to treat them like delicate flowers. If you give an assignment that you use in class and students are not prepared, talk to them about the need for doing the work. I never scream and yell at my students but I certainly let them know if I feel they have not upheld their half of the class work. I often stop students as they leave class with “you did not seem prepared today and I fully expect better from you at our next class.”

If you want to see an improvement in your teaching, pick one of these five and work on it for awhile. Or, pick a different one that you think applies to you. But you do have to make an effort to work on it. Just contemplating mistakes doesn’t do you or your students any good.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Really Is To Blame?

By now, everyone who reads this blog has probably heard of the book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Arum and Roksa that basically makes the claim that the emperor has no clothing by giving evidence that students do not learn much in their four years in college. If you have missed the release of the book, you can learn more at the following URL where the authors are quoted as stating "How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.”

What I find most interesting is that the blame game has started. Something is obviously wrong so what is to blame? Here are some culprits that I’ve heard mentioned: grade inflation, lack of education classes for college professors, the stress put on faculty to do research so they can’t focus on their teaching, lack of student preparation in K-12, student evaluations, lack of uniform requirements (students prefer to sign up for easier teachers – what a shock that one is), the desire of universities to retain students, increased use of adjuncts, the failure to reward good teachers appropriately, and on and on.

And, my response is—after 40 years in the classroom—certainly, all of these are a factor. We have built an education system with so many internal flaws that I’m surprised it works as well as it does. It is not one problem; there are many problems. Anyone with their eyes open should have seen this coming. You’d have to be totally in denial not to have expected these results. The only thing that surprised me about this study was that anyone was surprised.

I have always said that good teaching is not a mystery. If a teacher (a) seriously challenges a student, (b) helps the student understand the benefit from the knowledge to be obtained, (c) offers an appropriate amount of assistance, and (d) treats the student fairly, most students will be willing to climb a tall mountain for you. However, if you leave off even one of those four, students will gladly go drink beer and work on their suntans.

Is there a solution to the educational problem? Well, here is one. Following is part of an opinion piece that appeared in the University of Richmond school paper this past Thursday written by a student named Liz Monahan. (Although she has never been one of my students, I have written about Ms. Monahan and her opinion pieces previously.) And, although she is talking about this one university, my bet is that students at virtually every school in the country could say about the same thing (at least if you believe Arum and Roksa).

In her paper, I especially like her very last line. What would we teachers all do if this were to happen? Now, wouldn’t that change the world as we know it?

From Liz Monahan:
Four years of my life have been spent at a phenomenal liberal arts institution with enough learning resources (whether they be human or text) to wrap around the earth twice, and yet I find myself wondering one thing. What did I learn while I was here?

In the book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa discuss the data accumulated during a study they conducted on whether college students improve their critical thinking and writing skills during the four years they attend college.

The study, which involved using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, indicated that more than a third of students showed no critical thinking or writing improvement after four years in college.

The results of the study also indicated that 35 percent of students said they studied five hours per week or less, with a 50 percent overall decline in the number of hours spent studying compared to years past.

Sadly, I don’t doubt the data whatsoever. Excluding a small minority, we study less. I’d go as far to admit that I study less now than I did in high school. I remember spending hours on my Gateway computer typing up study guides for exams and writing extensive papers for various AP classes.

According to the study, 50 percent of the students said they didn’t have a single course that required them to write 20 pages total. I’m not shocked by that statistic either.

Granted, I am a journalism major and am writing constantly, however I do have many friends who say that when it comes to writing papers, they simply aren’t assigned them.

I can recall writing a 30-page research paper on inclusion in elementary education during my sophomore year of high school.

Thirty pages for one assignment makes all of the assignments from my general education classes at Richmond look like a two weeks paid vacation.

When I question why it is that we study less I think it all comes down to one thing: accountability. In high school I was held accountable by my parents, my teachers, my peers and more importantly, by myself.

If I didn’t put in the effort, I didn’t receive a good grade. And why should I have? I didn’t deserve one. Which was why I made sure I worked hard — always.

Accountability is not a word we hear very often in college, at least at this one. We’re all told that college is supposed to be hard.

That’s when the justifying starts. The fact that I got a C on an anthropology paper no longer has to do with the fact I wrote it the night before it was due, rather that I’m not an anthropologist. Justifications like these make lack of accountability a comfort.

Many professors are just as guilty as their students. Instead of demanding hard work, effort and, inevitably, respect from his or her students, he or she attempts to gain respect (possibly in the form of a good evaluation wink, wink) by catering to the “needs” of students.

Another possible explanation for the decrease in studying, authors of “Academically Adrift” say, may be that the pressure put on students to be socially engaged is too great. What do colleges care about? Student retention.

So a happy student means a student who is doing fun things on and around campus. Fun things on and around campus mean that student is coming back next year.

So when the admissions spiel sounds a little like, “We care about your happiness,” future generations of college students should smile because now they’re in on the joke.

Data from the CLA survey indicated that students who majored in more traditional liberal arts studies such as English or philosophy showed higher levels of critical thinking and writing skills. It makes sense. I can’t imagine it’d be easy to B.S. your way through an analysis of the Theory of Forms.

For those of you, like myself, who are questioning your personal improvement throughout your year(s) spent at University of Richmond, a word of advice: It’s not too late.

First step: Hold yourself accountable. No one will do it for you.

Second step: Challenge your teachers to challenge you.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What It Takes To Be Great – Part II

I did a little experiment over the last two weeks and, to tell you the truth, I was a bit surprised by what I discovered. I asked my students in Intermediate Accounting II (virtually all are second semester juniors) to identify the very best teacher they have had since they entered college. For most students, their teachers provide them with the best examples of leadership. I really wanted my students to consider the attributes that it takes for a person to be a successful leader. Most of them will graduate from college and, within a year or two, they will be in a position where other workers must report to them. Often, the upward trajectory of their careers is not based on their knowledge of accounting but rather on their ability to guide and lead the people who form the members of their team. A teacher is not exactly a team leader but the characteristics for success would seem to be somewhat similar.

My students were asked to identify their very best (“best” not “favorite”) college teacher and then write a short paragraph justifying this selection. In a follow up assignment, I asked each student to boil down the characteristics of this person into just three words. I wanted to see what I could discover (and what they could discover) about being the best by looking at these descriptions.

What I fully expected to receive was what I call the 2 C’s and 3 E’s of teaching: Caring, Challenging, Engaging, Energetic, and Enthusiastic. I have always said that a teacher can go far by simply focusing on these 2 C’s and 3 E’s.

What I got was a much wider variety of responses than I had expected (some of which I didn’t even understand). So, I had to figure out how to create an organizational pattern for the information that I had gathered. I finally decided that I could take each word that I was given and assign it to one of three classifications:

Teacher’s connection to students
Teacher’s personal attributes
Teacher’s method of instruction

Okay, some of the descriptive terms could fit into more than one category but I chose to use my best judgment and force them all into one category or another. Below you will find what I learned from my students. If you want to become a better teacher (on the road to becoming a great teacher), pick out a few of these terms and work to get a bit better. As a good friend of mine recently told me, it is really hard to know how to become a better teacher – it is such a nebulous goal. However, perhaps becoming a bit more enthusiastic will help or maybe a bit more helpful. Don’t attack the goal, attack the attributes.

Or, possibly a more efficient approach would be to take this list and grade yourself: “For each of these characteristics, what grade would my students give me?”

After that, ask yourself which grades bother you the most? There are undoubtedly some areas where you won’t be pleased with your own grade. Then, as you might with one of your students, ask yourself: “What could I do to get that grade up?” Merely, by identifying the attributes where you don’t like your grade, you are taking the first steps to becoming a better teacher.

The number in parenthesis indicates a term that was mentioned by more than one student to describe their best teachers. Remember, I created the categories myself after looking at the overall list of characteristics as a method of organization.

Teacher’s connection to students
--Caring (6)
--Engaging (5)
--Helpful (5)
--Approachable (2)
--Fair (2)
--Inspirational (2)
--Motivational (2)

Teacher’s personal attributes
--Personable (4)
--Intelligent/smart (4)
--Knowledgeable (3)
--Down-to-earth (2)
--Energetic (2)
--Enthusiastic (2)

Teacher’s method of instruction
--Interesting (3)
--Entertaining (2)
--Humorous (2)
--Passionate (2)