Category Archives: Professional Development
I recently came across an oldie but goodie, Larry Spence’s 2001 piece in Change, “The Case Against Teaching.” It’s filled with golden nuggets, definitely worth tracking down and reading the entire piece first hand. It’s going to be one you tuck away and reread. Here are two segments that resonated deeply with me.
“Why is education more resistant to innovation than business, agriculture, or communication? Because parents, reporters, citizens, children, politicians and professional educators share an unsinkable image of what teachers and students are supposed to do… It’s assumptions are that teaching is telling, learning is absorbing, and knowledge is subject-matter content. Teachers tell you what to learn and how to learn it” (p. 12).
“Beginning professors thus work in isolation without the criticism, advice, or example of their senior colleagues. Each struggles to learn the same lessons of classroom management. This arrangement guarantees not only the reinvention of the wheel, but the reinvention of the flat tire…. We get good at being professors-mostly by repeating the behaviors we witnessed while we were students” (p.14).
These quotes describe my teaching, in practice and philosophy, when I first entered the classroom as a community college adjunct, over twenty years ago. A family member asked, “What makes you think you can teach?” My response, “What makes any professor think they can?” I was a CPA, of course I could teach accounting.
You won’t be surprised when I admit it wasn’t so simple or straightforward. Truth-be-told, I was a terrible teacher. My first course did not start well. I knew it and so did the students. I thought it was their fault: lazy, unmotivated, unprepared, lacking ability. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be the reason the class never asked questions and performed poorly on exams. Borrowing from Spence, I reinvented the flat tire.
We were several weeks into the term when a student made an appointment to see me. We met in the library. I was ready to discuss accounting. She had other ideas. She started by telling me that it was clear I knew the material and was obviously successful in practice. So far… so good.
Then she dropped the bombshell: “I’m sure you realize the class is not going well. Would you like some pointers to improve your teaching?”
At this point, I remembered from the first class period introductions, this woman was a retired teacher. She was starting a consulting business and wanted to be able to understand her accountant. That’s why she was taking the class.
My initial reaction was shock and dismay. I felt like someone dumped cold water on me. Then I quickly considered my choices: Remind her I am the teacher. No thank you, I know what I’m doing! Or, admit it’s not going well and ask for help.
I swallowed my pride and asked for her advice. I implemented her suggestion, an active learning strategy, during the next period. It worked. Students watched me demonstrate, they took notes, and immediately did a similar problem in class. They had questions and I answered them. The transformation was remarkable.
The student who met with me, I am dismayed that I don’t remember her name, stayed until everyone else left the classroom at the end of the night. As she walked toward the door, she paused and said “Now you’re a teacher.” I didn’t realize it then, but that night changed my life. I started teaching because I thought there was a lot I could teach others. I continue teaching because I have much to learn.
To all the students who’ve learned with me and helped me grow as a teacher, thank you.
Reference: Spence, L.D. (2001). The Case Against Teaching. Change, Nov/Dec: 10-19.
While putting materials together for workshops, I realized my blog doesn’t have an easy way to find resources by theme. Today’s post addresses that gap. When you visit the blog you’ll see a new menu tab, aptly named Posts by Topic. It contains a summary of the research-based strategies and recommendations I’ve written about over the past few years in the following areas:
- Helping Students Grow as Learners
- Helping Teachers Grow
- Syllabi & Policies
- Academic Integrity
- Classroom Interaction
- Instructional Strategies
I’ll continue to update Posts by Topic as I blog. I plan to add a search utility soon. And most important, I will introduce support materials (handouts, sample documents, discussion questions, etc.) here and on my website in the near future. I hope you find the articles and resources helpful.
Helping Students Grow as Learners
You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material.
They say hindsight is 20-20. Evidence suggests otherwise. Awareness of cognitive biases is a first step toward helping students see what’s around, approaching, and behind more clearly to make better learning decisions.
Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn. ~ Herbert A. Simon
As educators, we know reading, reviewing, and “looking over” the textbook or notes are weak, passive learning strategies. I can tell them that passive strategies aren’t very effective, but telling isn’t as powerful as seeing that for themselves.
Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.
Should teachers be concerned with their students’ ability to learn? The answer to that question depends on a teacher’s belief about the primary goal of teaching.
Can doing well lead to a rebound of doing poorly? Meaning, might students feel licensed to “let up” in a course after doing well? Or might thinking about studying be associated with less actual studying? Or, is doing well in one course associated with licensed behavior (like reduced study time) in another?
Helping Teachers Grow
“At its heart, self-reflection requires that you question your assumptions and your habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you… In order to truly improve as a [teacher] you must do the hard work of questioning some of your most deeply held assumptions and beliefs…”
Relationship matters. Recognizing students’ prior knowledge and experiences builds mutual respect. Personal connection minimizes distance and promotes trust.
We can influence perceptions about our discipline and shape students’ understanding of themselves as learners. What systems and practices help students identify and celebrate their growth as learners?
Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being an effective teacher comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception. In reality, being an effective teacher is under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ).
An optimistic teacher is motivated by the opportunity to ignite student interest, recognizing that what worked one term may not work as well with another cohort, so it’s important to develop a set of alternatives.
I wonder how many of my students are dealing with “if only” remorse? Catching problems early, in knitting or academics, saves a lot of heartache. Some students may be trying to salvage a semester dotted with “holes” like poor attendance, weak study skills, procrastination, insufficient time or effort.
Teachers need to leverage the power of enthusiasm. A teacher’s passion for the subject is important. But I think peer interest can be more powerful because students can more easily relate to peers.
It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.
When we report grade distributions and make cross-student comparisons, we increase the stress and pressure experienced by introjection-oriented students. The external comparison-as-motivation works as long as the student is a “winner.”
Attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term.”
I suspect there’s a significant cohort of faculty in higher-ed who mistakenly believe the focus of engagement is akin to Kumbaya around the campfire. Kumbaya is engagement in schooling, not engagement in learning. A schooling emphasis centers on showing up, talking for points, and surface intellectual activity. Engagement in learning goes much deeper.
“Holy cow, this is what students feel like!” I forgot what an awful feeling it is to believe that you are in over your head. When was the last time you were a novice?
There’s a lot that sets the Millennials apart from prior generations, but the real question I want an answer to is this: Have faculty always longed for “better” students? And closely related: Have teachers always thought back to their own time as students as the good old days when students were serious, worked harder, etc?
Syllabi & Policies
A gentle reminder of the importance of first impressions and the subtle ways negative, implicit messages can quickly mar the learning environment.
Take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.
I softened my makeup exam policy about five years ago. It consists of one line. “Makeup exams are only given under exceptional circumstances.” When I changed the policy I feared many students would seek extensions or request makeups. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I find myself dealing with the question of how to define an exceptional circumstance. “I know it when I see it” has worked until now.
“The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people, similar to what one might have with friends. A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance” ~Singham, M.
I believe the best way to plan instruction is to ask myself two big questions. What are the course goals? What are the specific learning objectives? How these questions are answered provides the foundation for all the other decisions in the course.
If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?
Teachers grade participation because grading it is the only way to get it, right? Embedded in the desire to promote classroom interaction are deeply ingrained assumptions about grading and its effects on participation. If we believe students only do work that’s graded, it follows that we must grade participation to motivate students to speak up.
“Rather than blaming lazy students or bad teaching for the growth of Internet-facilitated student cheating,… We must change the underlying economy of cheating.”
The literature suggests teachers should routinely exhort students about the importance of attendance. This is more effective than penalties in motivating students to attend. I’m hoping continued messages from me, about honesty, character, integrity, may have some positive impact.
Discussion pedagogy continues to intrigue, inspire and challenge me. There is so much good work being done!
Reflection is a key to advancing learning from the interactions.
The teacher isn’t solely responsible for ensuring the discussions are successful.
“The most distinctive feature of questions during discussion is that they are open for discussion rather than closed for answer.” Dillon, 1998, p.125.
By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration.
Teachers need to consider how we can raise students’ awareness of cognitive biases, and we need to be aware of own tendencies toward mental shortcuts and foggy hindsight as we approach the end of another term.
A 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed reported only 28% of employers think graduates are well prepared in oral communication (AAC&U survey of 400 firms). The accounting education literature refers to this problem as the expectations-performance gap. The gap persists for many reasons. This post considers just one: misplaced priorities.
If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?
In Minds Online, Michelle Miller writes about the “third shift” problem in online learning. The first and second priorities are work and family, in either order. Schoolwork is the third shift. It’s often relegated to the night or whenever the first two “shifts” are completed. It means school work is getting done when the student is tired. I like the analogy. It’s pertinent in other learning contexts, not just online.
Running a race embodies so many parallels to learning. Students start the term with big plans and high expectations. They go out hard. Then we reach the 2-mile mark. They regret poor choices, doubt their ability, and consider quitting. I see fatigue in my students’ faces. Attendance is down. Illness is up. The semester feels very long and the finish seems far away. What can I do to help my students finish the term strong?
It’s Thursday. I’m asking questions about the homework. My students are looking back at me with blank faces. No one is volunteering. I’m starting to feel some frustration. Why isn’t the class cooperating like usual?
All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.
I believe many teachers grade homework because they assume if it isn’t graded, students won’t do it. There is some truth in that, but I am starting to think this is an assumption that warrants testing.
How many of our students view college with a “failure is not an option” mindset? If more students shared this mindset, would learning be enhanced?
Want to get students thinking? Or perhaps more accurately, want to find out what they are already thinking about? Ask them to ASK questions!
It’s easy to write a “no screens” policy, with harsh penalties and stick it on the syllabus. Finding ways to help students connect with content, making lessons that are relevant to today’s students, and actively engaging them in the learning process each class period is much more difficult. But if we do that, we may find the lure of the phone and students’ habitual checking for updates will be less urgent during the few moments we share with them each week.
When it comes to assignments, less may indeed be more. I am a firm believer in working hard. Assigning numerous small assignments can mean students are routinely engaging in course content. But, many small assignments can also become so “routine” that they are drowned out and possibly ignored. When was the last time you thought about the number of assignments in your course?
Highly specific syllabus policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) Inflexible policies have an implied message we may, or may not really intend: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the deadline. Deal with it.” Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse making. Rigid policies may discourage fraudulent excuse making, but at what cost?
Policies outlining the consequences may seem proactive, but aren’t they really reactive? We believe students will behave a certain way, our policies are responses to those beliefs. Instead of policies that react, I’d like to focus on practices that prevent or limit unproductive behaviors.
If we focus on poor behaviors in the syllabus, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if students behave in ways we seem to expect. Do we want students to do the work, in order to avoid losing points, or are we hoping students will develop a desire for learning? What will happen when the negative consequence is removed?
Truth in advertising… Notes to Myself was posted about a year ago. I’m resurrecting it because: 1. The message is timely at the end of the semester; 2. I’m reaping the benefit from my course notes as I make final preparations for the summer session. As your spring courses end, I encourage you to reflect and write.
Have you ever made notes for yourself about a course? It wasn’t always part of my teaching routine to systematically think about course design during the term. Occasionally I would scratch down some notes about assignments or questions that worked or failed and stick them the course folder. But I admit they often weren’t looked at again. This is especially true for courses I teach regularly. Thus, I missed opportunities to learn from experience.
Last summer, I developed a completely online version of an introductory accounting course. I’ve taught the course online before, but only in 12- and 15-week formats. This time, it was a compressed 6-week term. And because of the novelty of the format and the “once per year” opportunity to teach it this way, I typed notes about course specifics. And I left them in a place I was sure to find them-in the electronic course folder. When I searched for the syllabus my notes were waiting for me. Here’s a recap of my observations:
LESS IS MORE
My recent experience learning “R” (see Teacher as Student) showed me how overwhelming a new course can be, particularly online. Keep it clean and clear. Too much information up front is confusing and intimidating. Limit the number of folders and tools to the minimum needed for students to get started. The entire course does not need to be available during the first week. Minimalist doesn’t mean insufficient or thin. But it does mean really thinking about the value of each item and organizing all the materials in a way that is user friendly and easily accessible.
TIMING & SEQUENCING
A key issue in such a compressed format is striving for balance between allowing flexibility for students’ varied schedules while helping them stay on track in the course. In this condensed course, the pace is quick. If a student falls behind or delays in clearing up confusion it’s really tough to catch up. Lesson learned: create smaller learning modules, due sooner, with earlier feedback. Build the content more incrementally. The earlier feedback should help students see if they are learning the content well and understand it sufficiently to apply it to the projects.
In addition to providing earlier feedback, it’s a good idea to offer dual submission dates. For students who work consistently, consider offering a small reward including preliminary feedback on their work. Allow time for them to revise. Then set a final deadline for the assessment. Students who miss or ignore the preliminary deadline forego receiving formative feedback.
Related to the “less is more” theme, consider holding off on content heavy discussions during the early units. Wait for students to get a handle on the basics, understand the language of the discipline, and gain some confidence about what they already know, before adding discussions. The cognitive load associated with a new discipline is significant. High quality discourse is more likely when students can devote mental energy to discussion topics later in the course.
Use class introductions, to me and to each other, to teach the online discussion process, etiquette and purpose. Include a screenshot of a “nested” discussion to show students what deep online discourse looks like. Point out the “subscribe” feature in the LMS discussion tool. It will help students keep up with the latest posts.
Weekly “How-to” emails, unit “kickoff” messages and other, targeted messages from me should be an integral part of the course. I spent more time than I anticipated responding and reacting last summer. I’d like to get ahead of the issues this time. By predicting problem spots and sending upbeat messages, reminders and encouragement I hope to foster a community of learners, not just geographically dispersed participants in the same course.
This represents about half the list. The remainder focuses on very course-specific suggestions: edits to assignment instructions, the characteristics and complexity of some assignments, and guidance (or the lack of it) at various points in the course. If you’ve never left extensive course notes for yourself, I encourage you to make the relatively small investment of time needed to do this during and at the end of your courses. You’ll be surprised by the details you’ve forgotten. And you’ll be amazed at how much help those notes are when you prepare to teach that course again.
By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration. My experience has shown me that I am not going to solve anything in one stroke; at best I am only going to chip away at it. ~ Hugh Prather
Summer posts will be every 2-3 weeks… Best wishes as your spring term ends. It’s time for me to spend a bit more time in that kayak!