Monday, November 27, 2023


I find it amazing how many people believe that all you need to do is work harder and you’ll eventually become a better teacher (or a better student).  If three hours doesn’t work well, it just means that you should have worked for four hours.  You were a wimp.  You were lazy.  Any sign of failure simply indicates a lack of dedication and hard work. 

Yes, I do feel that hard work is essential for success, but I think we can overstress that influence.  In fact, I make the following point in my new book on teaching, Transformative Education.  

“Angela Lee Duckworth provides her own observation in a popular 2013 TED talk:

"’One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn’t social intelligence.  It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ.  It was grit.  Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.  Grit is having stamina.  Grit is sticking with your future.’

“I never dismiss the importance of hard work.  Few people invest as much time as needed to maximize success.  Nevertheless, advice such as ‘spend more hours’ and ‘develop grit’ seem too simplistic.  Preparation and practice are certainly essential.  My students are always encouraged to put in additional time whenever they are struggling.  However, an increase in the number of hours worked is rarely the complete solution.  Success in any field is more complicated.” 

One advice I always give my students and other professors:  Be careful of simplistic answers to complex problems.

So, I was pleased yesterday when I was reading the book, Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, and came across the following quote, “Sure grit was critical, but it also took luck and if luck wasn’t available, then help.  Everyone needed help.” 

Everyone needed help.  If I liked tattoos, that’s one I might put on my arm.  Whether it is teaching or being a student, that is the absolute truth.   No matter how much grit you have, no matter how hard you work, no one makes it through all the challenges of life and school without help. 

As teachers, we both give and (hopefully) receive help.  I set specific office hours and tell my students that they should come and see me at any time during those office hours.  I am 100 percent available to any student during those times.  When I give them a practice problem, I always suggest a time limit and tell them to come see me if they cannot get to the answer in the allotted time.  “The answer for this practice problem is $47,400.  I think you can work the problem in 15 minutes.  If you don’t get that answer in 20 minutes, bring your work by during my office hours and I’ll give you a hint or two to help you move forward.  You might need a little push.”  It’s amazing how many students wander in with the plea, “I got close to your answer but didn’t get it all.  Can you show me what I am doing wrong?”

Everyone needs help now and then. 

So, how about us as teachers?  When is the last time that you had a problem and asked for help?  Do you never have problems????   If you do, why not seek help?  As I tell my students (and members of my faculty), “You are not in this alone.”

Here’s a suggestion that I like.  Pick out the one or two best teachers in your building.  Most people have a sense of the people who are truly successful in the classroom.  Go to that person.  Don’t make vague inquiries ("How did you get to be a great teacher?") that often provide no benefit.   Have one very specific question.   “I’m struggling with this issue in my classes and wondered if you had any advice?” 

My bet is that the successful teacher will be flattered and will probably give you some great things to think about.  Then, of course, see if you can implement some of those suggestions into your class. 

Wait a couple of weeks and go back to your successful teacher with another question.  You are slowly beginning a conversation, a conversation with an excellent teacher built around those questions that are challenging your own teaching.  

What can you ask?   That depends on what is troubling you.  Here are a couple of ideas (these are the kinds of questions that I worry about).

--My students never seem to be prepared when they get to class so I wind up lecturing too much.  How do you get your students to prepare on a consistent basis?

--I want to stress the development of critical thinking in my classes.  How do you cover the subject matter AND push the students to think more deeply about the material?  Those are both difficult goals and trying to accomplish them simultaneously is never easy.

--My students seem to understand the material when we cover it in class, but they have trouble once they get to a test.  How can I help them reinforce the class learning so that the learning will be more successful?

--I want to engage my students, but I wind up doing 90 percent of the talking in class.  How can I get the students to be more interactive?

--My students seem more interested in their cell phones than they do in learning my material.  What should I do about those phones in class?

There are a lot of great questions that you can raise with a great teacher.   The resulting conversation will increase your understanding of the learning process and help you to make it more effective. 

Yes, being a great teacher (and being a great student) certainly takes grit.  Hard work is essential.  Nevertheless, we all need help.   And, from my experience, help rarely walks into my office.  You have to go out and find it.


A last-minute reminder:  I have an upcoming webinar on November 30, 2023.  It is on the topic, “Eight Things I Have Learned in 53 Years of College Teaching.”   If you are ready to begin the quest to become a better teacher, I hope you will tune in to this live program or watch the video at a later point in time.  I am not going to talk about how to teach specific topics but rather examine college teaching in a general sense.  Teaching is such an exciting vocation.  We change lives each and every day.  For that reason alone, we ought to work to get better every semester. 

The eight ideas that I will discuss all come from my new book on college teaching titled Transformative Education.  If you are interested in becoming a better college teacher, I hope you will join me on the 30th and consider eight of my thoughts on how to improve teaching.

Here is the URL to register for the webinar.  If you scroll down a bit, you’ll find a short video I made to introduce you to the webinar on November 30.

To get a free download of my new teaching book (Transformative Education), go to the following URL although it is not, in any way, necessary for the webinar on the 30th.   


Thursday, November 2, 2023


I write about ten new teaching essays for this blog each year.  If you would like me to drop you an email whenever I post something new, just contact me at  I would be delighted to let you know.


Although I am in my 53rd year as a college teacher, I still want to get better each and every semester.  That goal never leaves my mind.  As I have written often, you can never improve without trying something new.  It can be a big, radical experiment, or it can be small and subtle.  But, if you never try anything new, you’ll be stuck at your current level.  Teaching is too important not to work on getting better. 

In all of my classes, I give three tests and a final exam.  I want every student to have plenty of chances to show me what they can do.  Yesterday, I returned Test Number Two to the students in one of my upper-level classes.  They earned 3 A’s, 7 B’s, 5 C’s, and 2 D’s.  That’s about normal for one of my classes.  I’d love to tell you they all deserved A’s, but they didn’t.

I am very aware that some of my students were ecstatic with their grades whereas others were sad and possibly devastated.  Handing back a test always leaves me with mixed emotions.  I want the happy students to stay happy and I want the sad ones to start thinking about improvements.  I don’t want that second bunch to give up and lose all hope.

Students often feel like a small cog in a class, almost invisible, someone the teacher doesn’t really know or care about.  I decided to try to change that perception yesterday.  I wanted all the students to know that they were real people to me.   So, I spent about 30-45 minutes and wrote each of them an individual email talking about what I had seen so far and what I hoped from them for the rest of the semester.  I only wrote them 2-4 sentences, but I wanted them to know that I had them on my mind.  I wanted to reach out and encourage each of them to make needed change and finish the semester strong. 

I wanted to provide encouragement.  I wanted to provide a positive future in my class. 

The emails didn’t take long to create.  I just wanted each person to know that I had high hopes for them.  Most of all I wanted them to know that I believed in them. 

Here are a few of the actual emails just to show you what I had to say.

“You are very close to making an A but have not quite gotten there yet.  In class, you are clearly as well prepared as anyone so you might be a bit disappointed by not having made an A so far.  Go back and look at the test -- what mistake kept you from making an A?   It's not the end of the world if you don't make an A, but I would very much prefer that you did make an A.  Just keep up the good, consistent work and be really careful on the tests.”


“I know that you have worked extremely hard in this course and must be disappointed with your grades so far.  I am convinced that you are capable of much better work so don't get discouraged.  I did comment on the test that you seemed to struggle with the time limit.   Come by and see me some time.  I'd like to get a gauge on how much that hurt your grade.”


“You have made a C on both tests so far.  That is not bad but I'm sure that both you and I would like to see the next test be a B or even an A.  Look at that test carefully.  I know you put a lot of work in so I don't know if more time is the appropriate remedy.  What changes could you have made in your study or preparation in order to move the next grade up?   I'm convinced that you are capable of a higher grade.”


“That was a truly excellent test, and it was not on easy material.  Congratulations!  If you keep up that level of work, you should do great.  The real secret to this class is to see what I want and then do it.  You seem to have reached that point.”


“As I mentioned to you after class, your work has been very consistent.  I think you are more than bright enough to make an A but I think you'll have to get more focused.  There are just other students who walk in every day prepared to make an A and I'm not always sure that is you.  I'm fine with a B, but you can do better.”


Okay, I suspect you get the idea.  Is this a good idea?  I honestly don’t know.  I will be very interested to see if this experiment seems to affect any of the students in their approach to the class.   If I don’t notice any change, I probably won’t try it again.  That is the nature of teaching experiments.  I like trying things.  It keeps me focused on getting better as a teacher.


And, finally, my new teaching book, Transformative Education, has now been available for FREE for two months.  Without any type of real publicity, my book has been downloaded at the following site every 4 hours and 10 minutes around the clock, seven days per week, for all of those two months.  If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.  If you’ve not read it and want ideas on becoming a better teacher, here’s the download site.

I firmly believe educational ideas should not be hoarded.  I give this book to you and anyone else who is interested for free.  No tricks.  It is free.  My only goal is to help college teachers become better because I think our planet desperately needs better college education. 

Hope you will get a free download and start reading.  Please feel free to tell anyone you know who might be interested about Transformative Education. 

Monday, October 9, 2023

What Are The Stories That Can Help You Do Better?

I gave my first test last week.  That always scares me terribly because there will be students who struggle and then decide that they cannot possibly do well in my course.  One bad test and they give up.  They go crawl in a hole, so easily defeated.  They become immersed in the wrong stories, stories that begin with, “I’m dumb.  I can’t do this.”  That breaks my heart.  I want them to fight back.

For that reason, I work very hard in the week following the first test to change the narrative.  We are a product of our own stories and I want my students to be aware that they can change those stories for their own benefit.


Below is an email that I sent to my students last night.  We are already preparing for our next test, and I want them to think about the stories they are telling themselves as a result of the first test.  Do they need to change those stories?



To:  My Students 


From:  JH 


As a few of you might know, I spent last summer writing a book about teaching.   It was a project that I enjoyed dearly.  I worked 70-90 hours per week and loved every second.  It allowed me to think deeply about teaching.  What can work for my students (at least some of the time)?   How can I help every student learn better?


The book has been out about six weeks and I have gotten great responses from readers as far away as Germany and Canada. 


Now, let’s make this about you. 


You just had your first test of the semester.   

  • Some of you did great.   
  • Some of you did a bit less than great.    

As I have stressed several times during the past few days, how you ultimately do in this course will likely depend on your reaction to your first test.  Will the outcome of that first test push you to be a stronger student or scare you into being a frightened student?  That, to me, is a terribly important question.  How you answer that question may be the most important thing you do during this semester in my class.  Will the first test inspire you or beat you down?


I am a big believer that we often succeed in life based on our expectations of ourselves.   Below, I am going to provide you with a few paragraphs directly from my teaching book.  The only thing I’ve changed from the book is the black dot lists (they are now for students rather than teachers).  I’d like for you to read these paragraphs and consider how they relate to you and your ability to succeed in my class.  Whether you made 105 or 25 on Test One, YOU CAN DO BETTER.   I believe that 100 percent. 


The paragraphs below are about one thing:  the stories you tell yourself, more specifically the stories you tell yourself about your work in my class.  In the book, the actual stories are for teachers, but the idea applies just as well to you as a student.  What stories are you telling yourself about our course?  Are those stories designed to provide you with optimism and enthusiasm?  Or, do they simply scare you and make you feel hopeless?  Do your stories energize you or defeat you?   


You are ALL bright people.  Trust me.  I know that.  You are capable of great things.  In class, I can easily picture each of you 10 years from now being a true success.   However, if you are going to fulfill your potential, you need to tell yourself stories that will push you forward and increase your belief in yourself (right now).


We all tell ourselves stories.  The secret is to tell yourself stories that will make you better. 



The following is from: Transformative Education.  In case you are interested, the book is available for free at:


(Changes from the book are shown in italics.) 


The Power of the Stories You Tell Yourself.   I listen to audiobooks as I drive around in my Subaru.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, my commute is always more pleasant when accompanied by the sound of a good book.  A few years ago, I listened to Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed.  It is long and complex so I will omit a detailed synopsis.  However, near the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author comes to believe she has lost control of her life at least in part because of the death of her mother.  She decides to focus on a genuinely difficult challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and stability.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby such as pottery.   


With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the risk associated with that venture strikes me as absurd.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those three months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she encountered enormous challenges but figured out solutions to get through them all successfully. 


One morning I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  In the book at that moment, Strayed was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  At the last minute, she lost her nerve and almost quit without taking the first step.  In describing her faltering emotions, she wrote a sentence that is so insightful that I literally pulled my car over to the side of the road so I could write it down.   


Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.  


Shakespeare could not have written a better line.  “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.”  What an uplifting response to a personal challenge.  Those words have stuck with me like an arrow for years.  The relevance to our lives is even more apparent if we swap out the word “Fear” for alternatives such as “Hate” and “Envy” and apply the admonition to everyone.   Human beings are very much a product of the stories we tell ourselves.    


What holds us back from reaching our potential?  Unless we are careful, the stories we tell ourselves can create a substantial barrier, one that prevents us from achieving our desired level of success.  As the comic strip Pogo warned many decades ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”   


Consider the stories that pop up in the back of your mind when a problem occurs in one of your classes.  Do any of the following possibilities sound familiar?  They do for me because they have all crossed my own mind at one time or another.  In a moment of frustration, doubts always arise.  

  • This course is just too hard.  The high school I went to was not very good. 
  • I’m not as smart as these other students.  They make it look easy.  They sound so very confident. 
  • I get nervous when I take a test and I can never do well.  I make silly mistakes.   
  • I invariably do badly on important exams.   
  • Going to college is a waste of time for me.  I’m not cut out for this.   
  • I always know the material until I read a test question and then I panic and my mind goes blank.
  • No matter what I try it never seems good enough. 
  • I work as hard as I can, and I still manage to sound totally stupid. 

All these stories are absolute nonsense!  Our fears create such stories to give us easy excuses for avoiding difficulties, to give us permission to surrender or fail.  We allow ourselves to be held back.  Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results.    


Consider the stories you tell yourself and eliminate any that are drenched in fear.  Choose stories that are positive, optimistic, and productive.   

  • I really want to do well, and I plan to change my study habits to enable me to start doing better. 
  • The teacher believes I can learn this material.  I’ll seek more help from him as we move forward. 
  • It might take work, but I know I can learn this material.  It’s not easy but it is certainly not impossible.   
  • I can study more, and I can study more effectively. 
  • If I take my time and focus, I can do well in this course.   One test is only a small part of the grade.  
  • I like the excitement of class.  I can turn that excitement into deeper learning.   
  • All of these mathematical puzzles are actually fun to work.  I don’t dread this course.   
  • I didn't come to college to be lazy.  I came to college to create a better version of me.  
  • The course has just started so now is the time to really put out a good effort.  I’ll work to get a bit better every day. 
  • I can do this.  It is not easy material, but I can do it.  I now understand what the teacher wants from me. 


Life has so many wonderful stories if we can just avoid becoming bogged down by negativity. 


If you are not doing as well as you want, start coming up with better stories to tell yourself.