Sunday, August 27, 2017


My first class of the new semester will begin this Monday morning at 9 a.m.   It is a junior level class and I have sent those students about 12 emails throughout the summer to get them ready.   I imagine they are either intrigued by all the emails or terrified.   Nevertheless, I do suspect that they will be ready to go to work.

One of the first things I will do on Monday morning is provide the students with seven pieces of advice that I think can be helpful.   I want to help them understand how to do well in my class, and I believe these seven pieces of advice can be very instructive.  Every teacher is unique and students need to know what works for you and your style of teaching.  Students certainly learn during the semester how to adapt to a teacher and do well.   However, I would prefer to get them headed in the right direction on the first day.  Plus, if they do better, my life is easier.  Definitely a win-win situation.

Here is the advice that I will give them at the opening session.

(1) – I have asked every student who has made an A in my class over the past few years to write a paragraph just to explain how they managed to be so successful.   They write wonderfully insightful directions on what to do in my class in order to make a good grade.  They literally learn what is required for success in my class.  I gather these paragraphs in a Word document that I share with my new students a few weeks before the semester starts.   Advice (1) is to go back and read several of the paragraphs again.   Those students learned what I wanted.  Their performances were excellent.   They figured out the secret.   I tell the new students to look for words of advice that seem to pop up frequently in these paragraphs.  Reading a few paragraphs will only take 5-10 minutes but these student hints can be invaluable.  Plus, I like the idea of letting every student know that making an A is more than a possibility.  

(2) – Almost invariably, students do not study enough time between classes.  There is little in life that I am more sure of than that.  They study “until the assignment is finished.”   Since they probably have something else more interesting to do, they dash through each assignment and then claim it is finished.   “I prepared” often means “I rushed through.”  I prefer students to study a set amount of time between every class and hit that goal before each class without fail.   My classes meet three times each week.   I suggest that my junior students study 2 hours between each class.  They can study more but at least two hours for every class should really help them be successful.   I suggest using two-thirds of that time to prepare for the coming class and one-third to go back and review the material from the previous class.   If they are going to study 2 hours each time, there is no benefit from rushing.  Okay, but what if they finish early?   Then, they should ask themselves an excellent question:  How might an A student use the remaining time effectively?  The mere exercise of figuring out how to use the 2 hours helps them judge what helps and what does not help.  Rushing to finish studying is a problem for almost all students.

(3) – I suggest students come to the building 30-45 minutes early and sit outside the classroom with the other students and discuss the assignments.  Invariably, A students will tell me how important this last minute review was for them.  It refreshes the material in the students’ minds right before the discussion starts.  It allows them to use each other people to test out theories and answers.  The conversations provide different perspectives on complicated materials.  I love the dynamics of group learning.   I find that classes where the students work together informally are just better, happier, more efficient classes.  

(4) – I let them know that I do not know their grade point averages.  I do not know how they did in previous classes.   I have no bias toward any of them.  In my book, they all start out as potential A students.  I think that is how they should look at themselves.   I suggest they forget all previous grades and look at this course as an entirely new experience.   Too many students think of themselves as “C students” and then manage to live down to that expectation.  I wish I could hypnotize the students and embed the message “you are a bright student, very capable of doing great work with some energy and effort.”  I tell them to forget the past and focus on doing well this semester.

(5) – I let them know that I use what I refer to as “process goals.”  My process goals come from a definition of critical thinking that I got from   “Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.”   Therefore, I base everything we do in class on an “objective analysis of facts” to “form a judgment.”  In class we spend virtually all of our time studying unusual and weird situations.  They all have a call for action so our job is to come up with a viable response.  We objectively analyze the facts so that we can make some type of judgment.  Those are two clear and distinct steps.  Students seem to be used to “content goals” where they are expected to absorb (and often regurgitate) a certain amount of information.   I want them to understand from Day One why I present them with odd, weird, and unusual situations and then ask them to work out possible alternative solutions.   I find that the students are helped by having me stress those two steps and then push them through the process repetitively.   I think most classes should be an objective analysis of facts in order to form a judgment.  

(6) – One of the other big problems that students have is that they leave class with “Swiss cheese knowledge.” That means that the information learned in class looks solid but really holds quite a number of holes.   Perhaps the most important single step in doing well in my class is taking the time to fill in those holes rather than rush on to the next assignment.   I will talk with them about the kinds of exercises that I provide to help them turn Swiss cheese knowledge into real knowledge.  If your students struggle, Swiss cheese knowledge is often the problem.   If a student ever says, “I knew the material until the test and then I blanked out and couldn’t answer the questions,” what they are really saying is “I only possessed Swiss cheese knowledge and the questions exposed the holes in my understanding of the topic.”

(7) – Attitude is everything.  Over many years, the school process can wear students down so that they just go through the motions.   That makes learning tough (and boring).  I strongly suggest to my students that tackling a genuine challenge with enthusiasm and ambition is good for a person.  It is like aerobic exercise for the brain.  Our culture, I think, over-emphasizes winning and losing.  I believe the sheer enjoyment that comes from going after a genuine challenge with enthusiasm and ambition is vastly under-appreciated.  I tell them to do their best.  That alone provides significant benefit.

Okay, that is the advice that I will tell my students on the first day.   Probably none of them completely hear all seven of these pieces of advice.  However, I suspect most of them will hear 4-5 of the thoughts.   That alone can make them better students.

Those are my seven.  What list of advice will you like to give your students on the first day of this new semester?

How will you motivate them to get off to a great start at the beginning of this new semester?  If nothing else, begin to work on their "rushed preparation habits" and the problem of "Swiss cheese knowledge."  

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