Quick note: This teaching blog went over 95,600 page views yesterday. Thanks a million (and a half) to everyone who has mentioned these random writings to someone else who teaches. I’m convinced that people throughout the world of education really do want to have conversations about better teaching just so they can bat some ideas around. Sometimes, though, it is hard to get those conversations started. Perhaps something that is written here can serve as a conversation starter. College education gets beaten up a lot these days in the news. I’m convinced that more conversations among teachers would be a good way to start solving some of those problems.
And, in case you wondered, a total of 95,600 page views is roughly the equivalent of one page view every 21 minutes, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week for the past 3.6 years. Hopefully, that translates into a whole lot of better teaching.
Are you a sports fan? One of the things that I have noted over the years of watching basketball and football is that some teams just play better after half-time. They look lousy for the first half of the game and then, at the start of the second half, they suddenly seem infinitely better. An apparent lose is turned into an impressive win. As Shakespeare once wrote “All’s well that ends well.” I thought about this last Saturday when one college team that I follow was behind by three touchdowns late in the first half and I was completely disgusted by their efforts. However, in the second half, they looked like an entirely different team and went on to win by two touchdowns. A horrible game became a super game.
Some coaches just seem to have the knack for making half-time adjustments. They are able to see what is going wrong with their team and they figure out changes that can be set up to make improvements. In the very few minutes allowed at half-time, they manage to change how plays are run or what defenses are set up or the plays that will be called and the momentum changes abruptly in their team's favor. The winner is often the one where the coach makes the best adjustments at half-time.
As complex and fast as football and basketball can be, making changes that quickly and explaining them to the team has got to be tough. But it clearly can be done because a few coaches make those adjustments so very well.
Now, here in October, most college professors are about halfway through the fall semester. Are things going absolutely perfectly? If so, you clearly do not need to make any changes. If you are really happy with the class results so far, keep on keeping on (as the song says). Or, as I often hear people say, “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But, my guess is that many of you have recognized aspects of your fall class that are not making you happy. After 43 years at this job, I'm never totally pleased; something always seems to worry me. Some students do poorly on tests or they fail to prepare adequately for class or they refuse to participate in class. Why not stop and consider making some half-time adjustments and see if there is improvement? There are always things that can be done differently. There are always changes that you can try.
Experimentation and innovation are good for education. Don’t get stuck in a rut. If you don’t like what is happening, try something a bit different. If a coach can turn an entire team around in just 15-20 minutes at half-time, you (yes, YOU) can create some positive adjustments in your own classes.
Here is a process I would suggest.
1--Write down every concern that you have about each class so far this semester. List out everything that could be going better. Take your time and reflect on the first 6-8 weeks of class. If you don’t identify problems, it is hard to fix them.
Some of those issues might be totally related to you and your teaching. For example, maybe your class organization is not good enough or the problems you choose to work in class don’t demonstrate the issues you want to cover.
Other problems might be purely student related. For example, a percentage of students might come to class without having read the material or worked assigned problems.
2--Put this list in order from the biggest problem to the smallest. What really is holding back the learning that you want? What is keeping you from having the very best class in your building, in your school? That's always a good question to consider. Don’t dwell obsessively on problems that you simply find irritating. If a student shows up 2 minutes for class, that might be a problem but the education for that day has probably not been ruined. Place problems at the top that really have a serious impact on class performance—for the individual or for the group.
3--For each of your classes, look more closely at the five worse problems. You cannot solve all issues so try to isolate the ones that are the biggest. Of those five, choose the three that you are most able to influence. There is really no reason to waste energy at half-time if a quick fix is not possible.
4--You have now selected three of your top five problems. These are going to be the focus of your half-time adjustments. This is where you (yes, YOU) are going to turn the game around.
For each of these problems, list one or two reasons for its existence. Problems have reasons; they don’t happen by accident. I would bet that if it is your problem (you are having trouble with some aspect of class) then the most likely reason is lack of time invested. In truth, almost any problem can be solved with the allocation of sufficient time. Maybe there are other reasons for specific problems but never, never overlook the obvious: You are not investing enough time. Faculty are like students -- they look for shortcuts. Teachers can simply be underprepared when they walk into the classroom. After 43 years, I am always amazed by how much time I have to spend in preparing for each class. I must be a slow learner (my wife tells me).
On the other hand, if the problem is connected to students and student behavior, it usually relates to a lack of incentive. In life, incentives matter. If students are not doing what you ask (assuming you are asking for a reasonable amount of work), they must believe the request is a waste of time or (maybe more politely) they have seen no good reason to do what you ask. Students will not do work without a reason and it needs to be a good reason (“do it because I say so” probably lost its effectiveness in the Eisenhower administration).
5--Okay, so what are your half-time adjustments going to be? For your problems, are there ways that you can allocate more time especially to specific issues that do not seem to be going well? I realize, especially if you are also doing serious research, that time can be short. Nonetheless, if you want to be a better teacher, decisions and sacrifices do have to be made.
6--And, for the problems that relate to the students, can you add more effective incentives? It is always good to look at class and class work through the eyes of your students. What messages are you sending that are encouraging them to do the work? What messages are you sending that are reducing their interest in doing what you want? “Read Chapter 7 and I promise that on the next test, I’ll ask at least two questions that come directly from the material.” Or “Read Chapter 7 because I am going to ask you the following 5 questions in class on Wednesday that come directly from this material.”
Half-time adjustments are never perfect. Sometime your team is going to lose regardless of what changes the coach makes. But, you are clearly not without hope. Adjustments are available. Improvements are possible.
--Identify the problems you are seeing.
--Determine which ones could be improved in the second half of the semester.
--Select ones that are important and can be impacted quickly.
--Analyze whether each one is a teacher issue or a student issue.
--Consider changes that might turn things around.
--For teacher issues, think about the allocation and use of time, especially time spent before you walk into class.
--For student issues, figure out incentives that might encourage students to do what you want them to do.
Take control of the second half.