Category Archives: Professional Development

SWOT: A strategy for mid- & late-career teachers


One of the most common analytical approaches taught in business programs is SWOT Analysis. Students are asked to identify an organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.  The results identify strategic, proactive actions the firm can take to improve.  Andy Molinsky, author and speaker, recently blogged about the need for entrepreneurs to apply the technique to themselves, asking entrepreneurs to consider their blind spots, weaknesses and opportunities.  You can find the source article here. I think SWOT can be a useful exercise for mid-career teachers.

Strengths.  What are your teaching strengths? Are you organized? Do you plan well? Are you an engaging speaker? Do you have a way with words? Are you personable? Are you tops in your field? Are you reliable, dependable, trustworthy? Are you effective at motivating and inspiring students? Are you savvy with technology? Can you find that sweet spot of pushing students hard without discouraging them? In economic terms- what are your comparative advantages?

Weaknesses. Be honest. What aspects of teaching or work as a teacher is a struggle? Are you disorganized? Impatient? Do you have trouble learning students’ names? Have trouble managing teaching and learning at a reasonable pace? Does your teaching feel stale? Do you procrastinate? Return papers late? Miss opportunities for timely feedback?

Opportunities. Molinsky sees opportunities as “chances to build on your strengths and rectify your weaknesses.” Look at the patterns and relationships between and among your strengths and weaknesses. Are there ways to minimize a weakness by exploiting a strength? For example: Could you apply a technology skills advantage toward becoming more organized, managing paperwork, or grading more timely?

Threats. Threats can be internal, personal, departmental, or institutional. For contract faculty, job insecurity may be a significant threat. For tenure-line faculty slow publication acceptances and manuscript rejections can be significant professional hazards.  Decreases in funding, declining enrollments, changing demographics, new leadership, or a lack of institutional leadership can be threats to teaching vibrancy and effectiveness.

Look at the patterns and relationships between and among the SWOT categories.  How might you use this information to invigorate your teaching?

Additional resources:

Mid-Career Faculty: How to Stay Engaged Fulfilled and Productive. White paper from Faculty Focus,

Phelps, Patty. Nov 12, 2014. Climbing the Stairs: Observations on a Teaching Career. Faculty Focus,

Weimer, Maryellen. (2010). Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.




Academic Rigor: A Message to Academic Leaders

Faculty and students are not on the same page about what makes a course rigorous.

Draeger, del Prado Hill, and Mahler (2015) find that “faculty perceived learning to be most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context” (216). Interactive, collaborative, engaging, synthesizing, interpreting, predicting, and increasing levels of challenge are phrases faculty use to describe rigor. In contrast, “academic rigor” is an uncommon expression among students. They describe challenging or “hard” courses “in terms of workload, grading standards, level of difficulty, level of interest, and perceived relevance to future goals” (215). Course quality is “a function of their ability to meet reasonable faculty expectations rather than as a function of mastery of learning outcomes” (216).

These material differences about workload and course difficulty impact enrollment as students vote with their feet. These perceptions also impact end-of-course evaluations and retention. Some teachers attempt to manage expectations and more closely align students’ perceptions of rigor in the context of instruction. But ad hoc solutions fall short when the issue is systemic. Effectively managing these conflicting views requires combined effort by faculty and administrators.

Academic leaders can attend to this disconnect by gathering program or institution-wide data from students on the front end of the academic process. Sander, Stevenson, King, and Coates (2000) developed a questionnaire to “enable students to tell the teaching team what they believed should happen in teaching and learning (ideal expectations), what they believed was likely to happen (predictive expectations) and what they definitely did not want to happen (counter-ideal expectations)” (p. 310). The authors also collected data on students’ views of assessment and which qualities a good teacher is supposed to have.

This kind of data allows teachers and administrators to gain valuable insights about students’ perspectives and expectations about learning. Because learning maturation occurs over time, a sense of first-year students’ understanding and potential misperceptions about learning provide a critical lens from which introductory and general education course evaluations should be filtered. Subsequent surveying of advanced standing students can shed light on how beliefs and attitudes toward learning and academic effort have changed, and hopefully matured, as students advance through programs.

Addressing issues related to rigor more directly, a survey by Lizzio, Wilson, and Simons (2002) emphasizes students’ perceptions of workload. They ask:

  • What is your sense of the volume or amount of work in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the difficulty of the material in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the balance between the breadth (the range of areas covered) and depth (how thoroughly they are covered) of material in this subject?
  • What, for you, have been the key ideas in this subject? How well do you feel you understand each of these ideas?
  • If we were to give more time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • If we were to give less time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • What are your time commitments outside of university?
  • What activities compete with university study?
  • What skills, attitudes, or resources might assist you in better managing the workload in this subject?

Conversations among academic leaders, faculty, and students about rigor and learning are more likely to adjust student expectations to a more realistic level than efforts by individual faculty. Academic leaders are in a unique position to identify trends and patterns in student perceptions and view the findings holistically. Responding to data and making those responses explicit and visible demonstrates that the institution cares and is receptive to student needs. Collecting data on expectations up front and acting on the results may lead to more students completing and taking seriously the end of course evaluations.

“Sometimes expectations and preferences might be responded to by moving to meet the students’ expectations or preferences. Other expectations or preferences that the students might have could well be unrealistic. In such cases, it would be more appropriate to sensitively manage these expectations or preferences to more appropriate levels. In either event, the student has been listened to and responded to, which is, in our view, the real purpose of accessing student expectations and preferences in the first place” (Sander et al. 2000, p. 322).

Gathering this kind of data also supports faculty development. Academic leaders and faculty will have more insight about the comments and feedback armed with data on student perspectives on workload and learning. Viewing course evaluations through the lens of student perceptions about learning and rigor shows faculty that the value of course evaluations goes beyond a few summary ratings. 

The final benefit is programmatic. Information about student expectations and perceptions about the program’s difficulty, learning, and instruction can be beneficial in the design and delivery of modules and courses (Sander et al. 2000).

If teachers, administrators, and students hold different definitions and expectations about rigor and learning, the academic process falls short of its potential. Academic leaders can gather front-end data to better understand and manage mismatched definitions of rigor. The purpose is not to water down courses, make grading easier, lower expectations, or reduce standards. The goal is to manage expectations at the start of the academic process, thereby improving learning and retention and more accurately interpreting course evaluations through more closely aligned conceptions of rigor.

Note: This piece is a modified version of an article in Magna Publications’ Academic Leader Newsletter (Sept 2017). Click here for subscription information.  Interested in learning more about rigor, learning and course evaluations, please consider participating in:

Magna Online Seminar, “Aligning Student and Faculty Perceptions of Rigor” on September 27.  Register Here

Magna Online Seminar, “Interpreting Rigor: Tools for Evaluating Faculty and Increasing Program Retention,” on October 4, 2017.  Register Here.


Draeger, J., del Prado Hill, P., Mahler, R. “Developing a Student Concept of Academic Rigor.” Innovation in Higher Education, 40 (2015): 215–228.

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., Simons, R. “University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Studies in Higher Education, 27, no. 1 (2002): 27–52.

Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M., and Coates, D. “University Students’ Expectations of Teaching.” Studies in Higher Education, 25, no. 3 (2000): 309–323.

Better Late than Never

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.