I think three essential keys to having a successful class are:
--Communications – Your students cannot read your mind. If you want to direct them or influence them, you have to have a way to communicate with them. In my opinion, teaching in college at a high level becomes almost impossible if you do not have some effective method of communication.
--Evolution – I want my students to get better as students as the semester progresses It is not just that I want them to learn more material. I literally want them to become better, more effective students. I want them to grow as thinkers--over and above the subject matter that I teach.
--Motivation – Students are human beings. They become tired. They become discouraged and frustrated. I am not a cheerleader, but I do believe my students will improve if I both push them and entice them to work harder and think more deeply. A litte push can be helpful.
When I tell the above to any group, someone will invariable ask me for an example. Okay, here is one from my classes today.
My students have a few days off for our fall break. I want them to rest and relax, but I also want them to come back with a renewed vigor about my class. I do not want the semester to be a slow slide into mediocrity. Right before they left, I emailed them the following note.
Will they all read it and make some changes? No, of course not – that is silly. Nevertheless, I suspect a few students will read it and think about it and, perhaps, come back ready to do better. I very much want them to avoid giving up and accepting an average grade. Instead of coasting out the semester, I want them to try harder and try smarter. For me, and hopefully a few of my students, this email combines communication, evolution, and motivation.
At half time, what message do you want to send to your students?
Email to my students:
I have an assignment for you for fall break. It is not the typical type of assignment where I ask you to write a paper or do some practice problems.
Our course is not yet half-complete but it is getting there. You have approximately 20 percent of your grade finalized. We have been together now for enough weeks that I am no longer a mystery to you. I guarantee that you now know what I want. If I asked each of you to write a paragraph titled, “What does the professor really want from me?” you would all get the grade of A, maybe A+.
I always talk a lot about half-time adjustments. A football or basketball team is behind at half time and looks destined for defeat. At half time, the coach and players make necessary adjustments and suddenly look like an entirely new team in the second half. They turn things around and march on to victory. It is not a rare event. It happens every weekend. Half-time adjustments are just a necessary part of a long game.
I read yesterday a quote from Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric back in its better days (1981-2001). Few CEOs have ever achieved the status of Welch. The quote was a simple one, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” I think if you are looking for a guide to success, those words are pretty darn powerful.
As far as I am concerned, you are in the business of being a college student. Yes, you have many other responsibilities and interests but if you are a full-time college student trying to attain an education, then you are in the business of being a college student. After four (or so) years, this college student business might prove successful or it might not. I believe you need a vision of your approach to that business, one that you can passionately own and relentlessly drive to completion. That vision, I think, will help make those years more likely to be ones that you look back on with pride.
Here is my assignment for you over our fall break. Even if it is not quite half time of this semester, I want you to consider what adjustments you need to try in your approach to this course. For some, these changes might be slight, for others more dramatic. You know what I want from you. You have to decide (sooner rather than later) how you need to improve your approach and then you need to do it. It is a two-step approach. It is up to you. I just want you to consider the possibilities.
However, I want you to take on this assignment with Jack Welch’s words in mind. Take some time to do some serious thinking about your vision of YOU as a college student, create and articulate the vision you really want. I think Jack Welch delivered some great business advice but also some great personal advice. I feel that everyone needs a vision of their business that is so right for them that they feel led to drive relentlessly toward its completion.
I realize you are mostly 18-20 year olds, but it does not take much of a view of the world to realize that a whole lot of people do not have much of a vision for their business or for themselves. Mediocrity is not hard to find. I think colleges should push the idea of a personal vision more. Your vision of yourself will undoubtedly change over time but now is the perfect time (here at fall break) to start developing a vision of YOU in your business of being a college student.
Assignment: Figure out your vision for your business and then consider any half-time adjustments that will drive you toward that vision.