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Glass Half Full

Are you excited about the possibilities a new term and year brings? Or is this just a routine [yawn] start to another spring semester?

I am filled with hope and anticipation. I’m looking forward to meeting my students, discovering what they already know, identifying what their interests are, and exploring accounting with them.

Lest you think I am naïve, or a Pollyanna, I recognize there are lots issues that could (some might say should) discourage me. Each term also brings trials and difficulties. Some students aren’t very motivated. Teachers compete with technology for students’ attention. The list goes on and on.

But overall, I’m an optimistic, glass-half-full gal. I’ve always liked this quote from Churchill: A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.  Optimism is a major reason why my teaching remains fresh, more than 20 years into my academic career. Let’s consider a couple of opportunities others may view as difficulties.

Student motivation. Assigned readings go unread. We ask students to participate in discussions and they sit mutely, avoiding eye contact with the teacher. They don’t take notes well, study enough, follow directions, etc.

I could throw my hands in the air and groan about “students these days.” I could wish my institution admitted better quality students. I could resign myself to another “same old, same old” semester.

I could, but I don’t. Many students are curious. They want to learn. An optimist doesn’t sell students short. Each term is a chance to test a new method, tweak an old strategy, and learn from experience. It begins with examining what’s been tried, evaluating effectiveness, identifying alternatives from the pedagogical literature, gathering advice from skilled teachers, and seeking student feedback. 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.

One strategy I like is partnering with students; shifting power increases motivation. One way to signal partnering is by sharing power and ceding some control. I also like to ask students about their interests to connect them to content. [Recent followers of this blog might want to read Setting the Table for Learning, Big Questions, and Student Disinterest- Who’s Responsible? for additional examples and insights.]

Of course the devil is in the details. For a solid primer on student motivation, I recommend Pintrich’s (2003) A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts, Journal of Educational Psychology 95(4): 67-686. He explores “What do students want?” and “What motivates students in classrooms?” It’s a well-researched and thought-provoking piece.

Technology Distractions. Some teachers respond to the technology distraction issue with a “no-screens” policy. Others incorporate technology in class, putting screens to productive use. Some adopt an “I don’t care” approach, while others must adhere to their institutional policy.

Each new term is an opportunity to explore (or reexamine) students’ relationship to technology, its implications for learning, the ramifications for teaching and the ways it is changing content. One of my favorite articles about technology & teaching is Mishra and Koehler’s (2006), Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6): 1017-1054. The authors use a Venn diagram to consider the paired and triad relationships between/among teaching, learning, content and technology in a thoughtful and practical way. They ask the reader to:

  • Identify examples of technological content in your discipline.
  • Explore the ways your teaching has responded to the creation of new technological content knowledge.
  • Characterize how technology has changed / is changing pedagogy in your discipline.

Answering these questions shifts the focus away from “technology as distraction,” by moving it toward technology’s potential to advance learning. That shift leads to more strategic use of technology by teacher and students.

Perhaps I’ll reread this post in six weeks and wonder what I was thinking? But that’s the beauty of the academic cycle; each semester presents new opportunities and different students. It’s never the same. Each lasts only fifteen weeks. When optimism fails and difficulties grow so large they block sight of the opportunities, I rely on this variant of the serenity prayer:

God, give me coffee to change the things I can,

and wine to get over the things I can’t.

~ Unknown


Pouring wine

Of Elephants & Stink Bugs


I lost them.

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?

Isn’t it awful when that happens?

A few thoughts cross my mind. Perhaps they are confused. Maybe they are unsure of the answer. Perhaps they are too embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. But I did such a good job explaining the concepts on Tuesday! The podcast and supplemental packet have worked well in prior semesters. I don’t want to consider the possibility that I wasn’t clear, or the materials I developed aren’t working for this group of students.

I press on. Thirty minutes into a 75-minute period, a brave young woman raises her hand and declares, “I’m not getting any of this.” A second student adds “I don’t see the connection between the material from last class and last night’s homework.”

I am now forced to accept that my “excellent” explanations, materials and examples have not resonated or lead to understanding for these students. Instead of dealing with their confusion up front, I am now backpedaling.

As I tried to find different ways to explain, to make it clearer, a stinkbug (you can’t make this stuff up) swirls around me, and lands on my back! I have to ask a student to swat it off me. I am grossed out, totally off my game and we still have 30 minutes in the period.

What did I learn?

Check for understanding first. I often ask students to write a 1-minute, muddiest-point reflection. Had I taken that approach I could have addressed the confusion more systematically, instead of on the fly.

Teacher pride inhibits learning. I suspected the class’s confusion. But I didn’t want to go there. It meant facing two inconvenient truths: I wasn’t clear in my explanations and my plans for the class would need to be adjusted.   Ego focuses on the teacher’s needs, not students’. In many ways, teacher control and power are the flip side of the pride/ego coin. We’re the experts. If students don’t “get it” it’s convenient to blame them for lack of effort or ability. It’s much harder, scarier and humbling to consider what I could have done differently.

 Without rapport, I might still be in denial. I thanked both students for having the guts to speak up. You could feel the atmosphere in the room change as we acknowledged the elephant in the room. If we hadn’t established an environment where students feel safe to share their confusion, I would not have discovered the problem until the exam.

Good teaching isn’t mistake free. Like my students, I don’t like to make mistakes, especially not publicly. But what a teachable moment this was! We learn more from our failures than our successes. That’s true for teachers and students. I was forced to rethink the concepts and materials. I realized this segment would benefit from adding more active learning strategies. I’m now developing new in-class activities. I’m also exploring ways to individualize the content, to increase personal connections with the concepts. Without the hiccup in understanding, it would be business as usual.

I keep telling my students “we’re here to learn.” But talk is cheap. Changing the schedule, going back to clarify understanding, rethinking activities, and developing new assignments suggests “learning centered” and “student centered” aren’t just talking points. By mucking it up a bit, I got to “walk the walk” by showing them teachers learn from mistakes too.

Photo source:

Content Slavery: Causes & Solutions

Content Slavery: Causes

Why is managing content so challenging? Just when I think “I’ve got this…” Boom! I end up drowning a class in too much content. I think the problem has roots in love for our discipline. Here’s an example. My husband, working with a friend and mentor, is building a strip canoe. The boat is still in the early stages, but already it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also a magnet, attracting curious boaters and neighbors who’ve spied, through our open garage door, a 16-foot creation slowly taking shape. Like a Field of Dreams moment, “If you build it, he will come…” neighbors have been making the pilgrimage to our garage to chat with the boat builder. Each time, the conversation stretches for 30-60 minutes as my husband explains the intricacies of the process, what he’s learned, who’s he’s working with, etc. Dinner has been late several times because of engaging discussions and lengthy answers about the canoe.  Is it any wonder that we lecture too much or answer questions in excessive length? If you love something, you are more than happy to share what you know.

Another reason our courses are overloaded with content is many teachers don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “too much content.” In some cases, we rationalize by disciplinary expectations. Nurses: Which system of the body do you suggest we not cover: Circulatory? Renal? Pulmonary? Engineers: ABET accreditation requires it. Technical fields with licensing: We have to teach all of this for our students to be able to pass state boards.

In other cases, we just haven’t spent enough time carefully considering how much is appropriate. What’s necessary? What’s nice to know? What’s unnecessary? 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.

Sometimes teachers use content as defense. A class period crammed full of content leaves little room for students to think, let alone ask questions. The period follows a script; the teacher is in control. Applying this strategy, the teacher can claim the content was “taught” or “covered.” But that line of thinking leaves out learning, or perhaps just assumes that learning has occurred.  Or worse, this view reduces teaching to content delivery, as if presenting information and teaching are the same thing.


Content Slavery- Solutions

What can we do to break the chains of content slavery?  I recently covered too much in accounting.  My response was to follow up with an apology and a few changes.  I thought about how our class got overwhelmed and what I could do to get us back on track. Damage control in this case, included a very early morning email to the class. I apologized for the tidal wave of content presented at the expense of their understanding. Then, I backed up that apology with some changes in the next homework assignment. I cut out some new material, postponed some, and revisited some of the work that was rushed.

Preventing content overload is a better strategy than trying to recover from a bad class. One strategy I’ve used relates to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo asks us to gather all similar items and then question each one: Does this “bring joy?”  This is her criteria for deciding what to keep or purge when de-cluttering.  Items that don’t bring joy get donated or thrown away.

This concept can be adapted to teaching and is particularly helpful in course planning. Ask “Will this content develop students professionally/personally/academically?” Purging joyless topics makes space in the course for the most important content.  Identify content that can be eliminated (purging from the course) or donated (adding them to recommended reading, or making them extra credit assignments).  Clearing out clutter is liberating.  Imagine the teaching power and confidence that comes from focusing on the most academically vital material.

What if your content simply can’t be cut? Then consider delivery. In what areas is lecture optimal? What about video? Are guest speakers an effective strategy?  Can some content be explored independently? What needs to happen in class?  What doesn’t? How might students be included in some of the decisions about delivery? About content?

Going forward, I want to continue striving for balance between adequate breadth of coverage and deeper understanding. Some folks speak of “uncovering content” with students, as opposed to “covering it.” Others remind us “telling isn’t teaching.” In my case, I’m going to try to follow “more isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more” (paraphrase of Sabrina Fairchild, in Sabrina).

What are your thoughts on the crush of content? How do you manage the balance between quality of learning and the quantity learned?