Friday, February 7, 2020


One of my ongoing thoughts about teaching is, “Whether you are the best teacher in the world or the worst teacher, you can always improve.”  That is just common sense.  No matter what you teach or where you teach or who you teach or how long you have taught or how many awards you have won, you can always get better.  That aspirational realization pushes me forward every day as I seek to improve as a teacher.  Currently in the midst of my 98th semester as a teacher, that is a thought that I ponder every day.  How can I help my 65 students learn more, learn better, learn deeper?

Whenever I talk with other college teachers, I often encounter a sense of resignation, “No matter what I do, I’m never going to get better.  Why should I even try?”

That is utter nonsense.  Everyone can get better.  I have no doubt about that.  However, you must (a) honestly want to improve and (b) have a willingness to try new tactics and techniques rather than wasting your time explaining why every new idea will fail to yield positive results.  

Let me give you two ideas.  Perhaps, one or the other will help.  Or, possibly, these thoughts might push you to come up with you own innovations.  

(1) – As I have said multiple times on this blog, nothing improves the learning process more than having students walk into class prepared to learn.  Students often resist preparing because they see no benefit accruing from the work they are asked to do.  So, for every class, create a “Problem of the Day.”  Give it to them in advance and tell them they will solve it at the next class session.  Make it unique, creative, and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t bore them.  Intrigue them.  Do it every day so that it becomes automatic for them.  Tell your students that you will help them address the problem during class.  Together you will analyze each “Problem of the Day” but they must walk in knowing the facts, understanding the issues, and being able to explain alternative approaches and solutions.  Create each as a puzzle – every college student loves to solve clever puzzles.  

If you teach art history, you might create a “Problem of the Day” like this:  Assume in 1498, a 15-year old Raphael is studying Primavera, one of the most influential paintings of all time.  The artist Botticelli walks in and Raphael shouts at him, “You are going to rot in Hell for creating this painting!”  At our next class, tell us why you think Raphael would have felt this way?  As Raphael grew older, how might his opinion of this masterpiece have changed?  How do you think Botticelli should have responded to his young critic?

Or, if you teach literature, a “Problem of the Day” could be:  We recently read and discussed Madame Bovary, a book written by a French author (Gustave Flaubert) and published in 1856.  It concerns a woman, her husband, and her lover.  In despair, she commits suicide.  Our current book is Anna Karenina, a book written by a Russian author (Leo Tolstoy) and published in serial installments between 1873 and 1877.  It concerns a woman, her husband, and her lover.  In despair, she commits suicide.  Select one key event found in Anna Karenina and compare it to a similar event found in Madame Bovary.  Describe how the resulting narrative might have been influenced by (a) being written by different authors, (b) being written in different countries, (c) being written in different times, or (d) being published in different forms.

Or, if you teach history, a “Problem of the Day” could be:  Stonewall Jackson died less than two months before the Battle of Gettysburg.  Speculate on how the results of that battle (and, hence, the rest of the American civil war) might have been different had he still been alive.

Or, here is a “Problem of the Day” that my introductory accounting students discussed in class TODAY:  Ace Company owns land that it bought 20 years ago for $40,000.  Now, it is worth $65,000.  Ace is preparing financial statements and trying to decide whether to report the land at $40,000 or $65,000.  Give one good reason for reporting each of these numbers.  If you were in charge of creating accounting rules, would you choose the $40,000 or the $65,000?  What is the real rule?  Why is that the rule?  Do you like that?

My students had a fabulous conversation about that “Problem of the Day.”  They came in prepared and the discussion was quite animated.

A “Problem of the Day” does not have to be overly complex.  It merely has to be (a) interesting/intriguing, (b) a topic that carries the learning process forward, and (c) a question that requires the students to do some thinking prior to walking into the classroom.  However, you absolutely must make use of that problem at some key point during the designated class or your students will not prepare for your next “Problem of the Day.”  Never ask them to do work and then ignore that assignment.

Create a new “Problem of the Day” for every class of the semester and, I think, you will be amazed by how much better your students prepare for class, how much more they learn during class, and how much more they enjoy the class.  

(2) – Students simply don’t know what they don’t know.  They leave class each day with no good way to measure whether their learning is adequate.  Previously, in this blog, I have discussed “Swiss Cheese Knowledge” which is student understanding that looks solid to them but is actually full of holes.  

Consequently, as often as possible, maybe once or twice each week, email them a follow up problem immediately after class (well, within 24 hours) and simply say, “If you can address the following question, then you successfully learned what I wanted you to learn in class today.  I have included a rubric to show how I would have graded this question on a test.  What grade do you believe I would have given your answer?  If that grade is what you want, then move on to something else.  Your knowledge is solid.  If that grade is not what you want, ask yourself (or me) what do you need to do now to attain the level of understanding that you want.” 

I have the benefit of decades of teaching so I usually know what they do not yet know, where the holes in their knowledge are most likely to be hidden.  Over the years, I have developed a series of test-like questions to follow up each topic of conversation.  I email a new question to them as needed.  I usually set a time-limit to help them gauge the difficulty level, “You should be able to come up with reasonable answers in 15 minutes.  Then use the rubric to grade yourself.  Let me know if you need assistance.”  I find that students are more likely to do a post-class problem if you provide time guidance.  That way they know they are not expected to get bogged down for hours.
Can any teachers use these two techniques to help students (a) be better prepared each day for a rousing class discussion and (b) gauge what level of understanding they have achieved and where additional work might be needed?  Sure.  Why not?

Would these suggestions help you?
I honestly don’t know.  I use both of them religiously and think they help
But that is me.
The only way to know is to try one or both.  
As with almost any educational experiment, you’ll probably need to play around with the ideas to see what works best in your class with your students.
I do think they are worth a try.
Whether you are the best teacher in the world or the worst, you can always get better.  
Try something new.

1 comment:

  1. Those last three words are critical. If, as a professor, you do the same, old, tired, classes, year after year, YOU get bored to the point the students feel it - they respond accordingly (are also bored!) Classes need NEW things, for the professor, as well as the students. The "problem of the day" process is an excellent way to go!