Blog Archives

Today’s Expert was Yesterday’s Beginner

My husband, Bob, and I have been learning lots of new and different things during the past year. He is nearly finished building a strip canoe and recently acquired a more advanced camera and lenses commensurate with his wildlife photography skills. Meanwhile, I took up trail riding last spring and started knitting in the fall.

These learning activities often lead us to specialty stores and interaction with professionals. Sometimes, walking into a specialty shop is like stepping into a foreign land. Other times we meet the expert and despite the difference in skills, we feel at ease. What drives these differences? Let’s consider a few scenarios to explore the implications for teaching and learning.

Building a Strip Canoe. I have written about this project before. It’s a BIG undertaking.  Bob and his boat building buddy/mentor, Michael, having been working together for nearly a year. Bob would not have attempted such a challenging project without an expert by his side. Long before they started, Michael made this point very clear: You are not in this alone. We’ll do it together. Teaching Implication: The teacher’s commitment to the task, process, and learner shrinks the gap between expert and novice.  Genuine belief in a student’s ability to learn, and teacher commitment to the process is a powerful motivator.

Photography Enthusiast. Bob has been interested in photography since his teens. An avid outdoorsman, he shoots more with a camera than anything else these days. After ten years with the same camera and lenses, it was time for new equipment. Bob visited a local camera shop to explore options and brands. On his first visit, he learned a lot but the interaction with the expert was stilted. Some questions weren’t answered. The expert stepped away and seemed preoccupied. When Bob visited a different shop, rapport was established quickly. He felt valued as a customer. His knowledge of photography was recognized and he was encouraged to take advantage of classes to further enhance his skills. Teaching Implication: Relationship matters. Recognizing students’ prior knowledge and experiences builds mutual respect. Personal connection minimizes distance and promotes trust.

Knitting & Yarn Stores. Have you walked into yarn store recently? Depending on your interest and skill you may feel indifference, intimidation, exhilaration or inspiration. Before I started knitting, I was indifferent. It was nice to look at the colors and touch the textures, but yarns simply didn’t excite me. Now that I’m an intermediate knitter, I’ve become a yarn harlot. I feel exhilaration and inspiration when I shop for yarn. I love when the store displays sample garments.  It shows me what’s possible. Samples entice. Teaching Implication:  Teachers can promote student interest by previewing what they will know or be able to do after the course. Consider how much easier and more fun it is to teach students who are interested in the content and learning. Investing a bit of time to pique curiosity can shift students’ attitudes about the discipline from indifference toward inspiration. Two strategies are showing examples of prior students’ work and sharing what alumni are doing professionally.  These approaches are particularly effective if students or alumni share their work and experiences first hand, by video or classroom visit.

Biking & Bike Shops. Contrast the yarn store emotions with my feelings when I walk into a bike shop. These stores cater to serious enthusiasts by selling high tech gear. I generally feel like an imposter. “Don’t mind me, I’m only pretending to be a cyclist. I don’t belong here.” The shop clerks never do or say anything to make me feel this way; it’s all in my head. Last week’s post mentioned how a bike shop technician validated me as a rider. That encouragement increased my sense of belonging. Teaching Implication:  Teachers probably can’t change the narrative scrolling in students’ heads. But we can engage in behaviors that validate and build community. We do this when we smile, welcome them by name, notice and reach out if they are absent, offer help, and engage in behaviors that show each student they are more to us than just a face in the crowd.

Teachers are experts. Experts can be intimidating. To promote learning, students need to see the professor as more than an “authority” or “professional.” They need to see us as real, caring people, who happen to know a lot about a subject. They need to be reminded (and it’s healthy for teachers to remind ourselves) that today’s expert was yesterday’s beginner.

thought for the day

Recommended reading:

Hiller, T.B. & Hietapelto, A.B. 2001. Contract Grading: Encouraging commitment to the learning process through voice in the evaluation process. Journal of Marketing Education, 25(6): 660-684.

Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, 37(3): 50-57.

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teaching Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1): 39-53.



Unproductive Student Behaviors- DEADLINES & LAME EXCUSES

Today’s post on deadlines & lame excuses is the third in a series on unproductive student behaviors. It’s depressing to see students making poor decisions about learning.  They don’t come to class, or they arrive unprepared. They miss deadlines and make excuses. (How many times can one grandmother die?!) Many teachers try to prevent negative learning behaviors through policies that punish the offenses.

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? Blanket policies requiring “written documentation” can be tough to enforce, and who really wants to know about the specifics of a student’s or their family member’s health crisis? In the age of FERPA, this approach isn’t optimal.

Instead of focusing on creating airtight syllabus policies, teachers should ask themselves:

What is your educational rationale for the deadlines?

Have you recently, if ever, considered this question? Do you provide that rationale to students? If students need to be prepared to face strict deadlines after graduation, then firm deadlines in college make sense. But is this necessary in every class? At every level? For all assignments? Explaining the rationale goes a long way toward helping students understand faculty aren’t focused on making life difficult for them. Instead, teachers are interested in preparing students for life after college.

Do you accept late work? What is your reasoning? Have you shared your thinking with students? How much advance warning do you provide about firm deadlines? Do you provide reminders? Faculty often cringe at the idea of reminders. “It’s in the syllabus;” or “I don’t have time to send reminders” are common justifications. But look through your work email.  How many reminder messages do you get each week?

Stuff Happens- How will we deal with it?

I’m proposing a shift in focus from teacher-set cutoffs to deadlines created with some student input. Consider the work we do as faculty. Sometimes, we’re asked to share in setting the structure or timing of commitments: classes, committee meetings, report deadlines, etc. We appreciate having a say in when work is due. A policy we help shape is one we own, and one that we are more likely to live up to.

Instead of a top-down approach, perhaps we need a conversation about why deadlines are important and why they are missed. Do the deadlines only matter to the teacher? Or are deadlines necessary to ensure students make progress in their learning at an appropriate pace throughout the term? What other reasons do teachers have for setting deadlines?  What reasons might students offer for wanting deadlines?  Why are they missed?

The teacher’s role is to provide course structure, including the timing and flow of learning. Can students have some say in the policies regarding late work and the consequences of missed deadlines? Including students in setting guidelines and expectations suggests they are responsible participants in the learning process. Incorporating student input fosters student ownership of the deadline and the learning process.

Here are a few interesting articles (oldies but goodies) discussing collaborative policies and practices that increase student commitment to learning.

Giampetro-Meyer, A. 1997. Encouraging students to demonstrate intellectual behavior that professors respect. College Teaching, 45(3):92-95.

Hiller, T.B., Hietapelto, A.B. 2001. Contract Grading: Encouraging commitment to the learning process through voice in the evaluation process. Journal of Marketing Education, 25(6): 660-684.

Jester, P.V., Duncan, D.D. 1987. Creating a Context of Commitment: Course Agreements as a Foundation. Journal of Management Education, 11(3): 60-71.

What are your views, policies and practices dealing with course deadlines and student excuses in the context of students’ ownership of their learning? Please share!