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Goal Shift: Starting with the End in Mind

A soccer ball stuck on the net behind goal

Over the years I’ve unsystematically made changes to the items on the end of course evaluation form. Typically, it was hastily considered, with changes requested at the deadline. My motivation was a desire to capture feedback related to instructional strategies I used that term. Note the key words here- “hasty” and “unsystematic.”

I needed to be more intentional. Thus began an experiment last semester. Instead of thinking about the evaluation criteria near the end of the course, I chose questions before the semester started. As I prepared to teach and throughout the term, pedagogical decisions were made with these course evaluation criteria in mind:

  • Relating course material to real life situations
  • Making class sessions intellectually stimulating
  • Helping students answer their own questions
  • Encouraging students to apply concepts to demonstrate understanding
  • Emphasizing learning rather than tests and grades
  • Guiding students to be more self-directed in their learning

See Feedback Questions as Course Scaffold for additional background.

Student-created Practice Problems: I created several blank templates that allow students to set variable amounts and prepare the related analyses and entries. Sometimes the template was an in-class learning activity. In other cases, I offered a little extra credit. While learning accounting is the official goal of these templates (accounting colleagues, contact me if you’d like to discuss or obtain copies), they accomplish so much more. Students engaged in an active study strategy, instead of “looking over” notes. Peer evaluation fostered collaboration and community. Prepare-pair-share led to discipline-based interaction as students discussed the variables, solved each other’s problems and corrected mistakes.

Suggested Study Timeline: For the first exam, we mapped out a suggested timeline for study. This was done during class. Then, over the following five days, I posted encouraging (and humorous) reminders ad announcements in the LMS. Later in the term, students remarked how helpful that was. They also asked if I would map that out for them again. My response- Now that we’ve developed a study plan together in class, will you create a plan of your own? Will you use this strategy in other classes? While it’s tempting to “just do it” with or for them before each test, students sometimes need the teacher to step back and not fill the gap.

Textbook Reading Notes: One of the homework assignments (toward the middle of the term) asked students to take notes on the chapter reading. This led them to a wondrous discovery: Class time makes so much more sense when you read the chapter beforehand! Students got so much from this homework they suggested it be routinely assigned. My response- Now that you’ve seen how beneficial it is to read before class, will you continue to do it, even if it’s not for credit? Will you do it for the sake of learning?

During mid-semester informal feedback, some students acknowledged they could be doing more to own their learning. That is a distinct shift from prior semesters. Instead of primarily looking to the teacher to teach, there was a clear recognition by students regarding their contributions to promoting learning collectively during class as well as the kinds of activities and effort learning requires. This closely aligns with USC’s recent initiatives in the area of student evaluations of teaching:

Umbrella questions such as, “How would you rate your professor?” and “How would you rate this course?” — which Clark called “popularity contest” questions — are now out. In are questions on course design, course impact and instructional, inclusive and assessment practices. Did the assignments make sense? Do students feel they learned something? Students also are now asked about what they brought to a course. How many hours did they spend on coursework outside of class? How many times did they contact the professor? What study strategies did they use? While such questions help professors gauge how their students learn, Clark said, they also signal to students that “your learning in this class depends as much as your input as your professor’s work.” [emphasis added] [Source: Teaching Eval Shake-Up, InsideHigherEd, May 22, 2018]

When asked to describe what the instructor did to facilitate learning, one student put it this way: “Dr. Paff had a great method of having students read the chapter and use the screencasts that she prepared to grasp some fundamental concept before class…. This style of class is effective because it drives students learning by themselves and rewards students for being good students.”

With this framework, I spent less time picking out homework problems from the textbook (a standard practice in accounting) and more time devising strategies that help students become answerers of their questions, promote self-direct learning, and make class time intellectually stimulating. Students still learned accounting, but this time they learned about themselves as learners too.


Food for Thought (Ignore the salad)

On a recent evening, I accessed Amazon Prime to watch one of my guilty pleasures, The Sopranos. As I clicked through the site to pickup where I left off, this message popped up on my screen:

“Would you like Amazon to assist you in making a donation to your favorite charity?”

 I clicked “No” and proceeded to watch the video. But while I watched, I was troubled by a couple of questions. Why would Amazon make that offer? What’s in it for them?

It hit me the following morning. I believe Amazon was trying to take advantage of the licensing effect, a concept studied extensively by consumer behaviorists and behavioral economists. In a nutshell, the licensing effect suggests doing something responsible, altruistic, healthy, or virtuous empowers (licenses) you to do something for yourself. At first glance it appears to be part of the mental balancing act we engage in when we reward ourselves with a treat after a workout, a rational internal decision-making system.

But researchers have discovered the principle goes beyond rewarding ourselves for work done, donations made, or virtuous acts performed. Evidence suggests thinking about doing something virtuous is enough to get folks rewarding themselves. Here are some examples:

Did Amazon expect me to make a donation? Probably not, and I don’t believe that was the intent. I think they were hoping to activate the licensing effect. If Amazon prompts me to think about giving to charity, my subconscious may lead me to reward myself with a purchase on their site.

It didn’t work. At least not as they intended. I haven’t purchased anything from Amazon recently. But research suggests this is a pervasive, subconscious effect that crosses areas. I may have rewarded myself in a different arena (Did it motivate my recent trip to a yarn store?) without realizing it was the subtle effect of the popup.

The research is fascinating, and I have a lot more questions than answers. At issue for me and readers of this blog is how the licensing effect might manifest in student behavior and learning.

Spring Salad

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? Does thinking about volunteer work lead to reduced action/effort in academics? How might the timing, availability and amount of extra credit license student learning behavior? Do our syllabi contain “salad” policies that are inadvertently licensing unproductive decisions?

What are your thoughts? Might some of the unproductive learning decisions students make be the result of the licensing effect?  If so, what strategies can teachers use to minimize the licensing effect in learning?  Please share.

Interested in a little more reading? I recommend:

Wilcox, K., Vallen, B., Block, L. & Fitzsimons, G.J. 2009. Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision. Journal of Consumer Research, 36: 380-393.



Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions

This week’s post is an article I wrote for Faculty Focus.  You can find the original here:

Policies are necessary. They serve as a warning to students: this is what will happen if you are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late, text or surf the Web during class, and the like. Most institutions recommend teachers spell out consequences in their syllabi. Some schools employ institution-wide policies for certain behaviors like academic dishonesty. If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?

Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt their effort to learn. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, many students believe their learning is unaffected by technology distractions. “No screens” policies are aimed, at least in part, to minimize distractions that hurt learning (their own and peers’). But policies aren’t nearly as powerful as an activity that demonstrates the effects of distraction.

Split the class into two groups. One is allowed to text; the other turns phones off. After the lecture, students complete a short quiz. Ellis, Daniels, and Jauregui (2010) report students in the phones off group score significantly higher. Differences in points or scores will grab students’ attention and are more likely to get them thinking about their mobile technology use in and out of class than a “no screens” policy.

Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive. A student engages in a behavior that isn’t addressed in the syllabus. A common reaction is to add a new policy or rewrite the existing one for the following term. The syllabus grows by a few lines. But the new policy assumes future students will behave the same way. Different students may behave in different ways, again, not covered in the policy. And the student whose negative learning behavior precipitated the new policy may not be in future courses. Has the new policy accomplished anything for that student?

Sometimes these behaviors are one-offs. No policy fix is necessary. Generally, a “new” negative learning behavior would be more effectively addressed if the teacher talked with the student individually or thought about what may have caused the behavior, and then identified strategies to prevent it. Adding or editing policies is a quick fix, but not one that advances student learning.

Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) The focus is on grades, lost points, and consequences, instead of on learning and the learner. Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse-making. Meanwhile, inflexible policies often have an implied message that’s probably unintentional: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the rule. Deal with it.”

Learning is personal. Harsh language and rigid rules diminish community and send a message of distrust, and generally suggest teachers don’t believe students will do work without the threat of penalties. Worse, these policies suggest faculty don’t believe the best about students. This leads to students believing teachers don’t like or care for them.

A focus on rules and policies shifts interest away from learning. One way to redirect attention is to share the learning and professional rationales that underpin deadlines and policies. Provide opportunities for students to have input about some assignment details or a few due dates. A policy students help to shape is one they own, and one they are more likely to live up to.

Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to become self-directed learners. Policies, especially those with harsh consequences, may reduce the number of times students arrive to class late or show up unprepared. But what happens when the policy stick (or carrot, for that matter) is removed? If students are only behaving in a certain way because of a penalty or reward, what have they learned about the value of the behavior (like reading) as part of learning?

Fortunately, there are teacher practices that help students mature as learners while promoting positive learning behaviors. Teachers can incorporate homework logs, assign learning reflections, facilitate student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading. Each of these strategies increases student ownership of learning and advances their development as independent learners.

Consider how a strict policy commands attendance. Instead, or in addition to policy, provide data that shows the negative correlation between the number of absences and exam scores. Or, provide the dates specific topics and concepts were covered and tell students the dates they were absent. If students see that they lost points on topics that were learned during their absence, they can see the consequence of skipping class. This kind of evidence teaches more about the value of attending class than does a policy requiring it.

Supplement course deadlines with a conversation about learning behaviors like procrastination and time management. Share your own strategies for juggling multiple responsibilities and meeting short- and long-term commitments. Could students share their successful and not-so-successful time management experiences? Have students been asked what would help them get the work done in a timely way? Discussions about punctuality, procrastination, and time management advance students’ understanding of how they work and learn.

Policies are necessary. It’s important for students to understand what is expected of them and the consequences when they fall short. But to develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences.


Ellis, Y., Daniels, B., and Jauregui, A. 2010. The effect of multitasking on grade performance of business students. Research in Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from: