SIX QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT AS YOU START A NEW YEAR


This will be my 201stentry on this blog.  That is roughly 190 more than I expected to write when I first began.   Over the years, the blog has had 130,000 page views and was recently named one of the top 50 blogs in accounting for 2014.   (http://www.accounting-degree.org/50-best-accounting-blogs-of-2014/)    Unfortunately, it was the only blog on the list that dealt with education.   I would honestly love to be reading 50 different blogs about teaching and learning.    At that point, I think college education could really begin to improve.   So, start a blog.   Share your opinions.   Share your questions.   Share your doubts.   Share your frustrations.   We need more of that.   You will never be able to estimate how much the blogging process can improve your own teaching until you start typing and posting.

As always, I want to pass along my great appreciation to everyone who forwards messages to colleagues about my various thoughts and ideas on this blog.   Any success here is dependent entirely on the many kind people who read these essays and discuss them around their own faculty coffee rooms. 

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Some years ago when I first began to write about teaching, I received an email from a stranger in England.   That email has long since been lost but it said something like “You don’t know me but I have read several of your essays on teaching and believe you will appreciate the attached quote.”    How very correct he was.   Sadly, I don’t know who sent the email or even the origin of the quote.   But, I cannot possibly describe how much the following words have influenced me over the intervening years.  

   "Teaching does not come from years of doing it.  It actually comes from thinking about it." 

As I get older, I am ever more convinced that we teachers don’t invest sufficient time thinking deeply enough about our classes, our students, and the learning process.   It is easy to get stuck on autopilot.    Every year is like the last one.   We understand when certain aspects of the experience are not going well but we avoid delving into those problems with the thought necessary to arrive at creative and effective improvements.   More and deeper thinking might just be the cure.

As we move toward the beginning of another year and the opening of a new semester, I want to urge all of us (you and me both) to spend some hours over the winter break just thinking about teaching.   Focused meditation can help us consider how we can make 2015 the greatest year of our teaching careers.

That is a reasonable and upbeat goal:  2015 the greatest year of our teaching careers.   Can we do the thinking that is necessary to make that goal a reality?   When I give presentations to educators and make such a bold suggestion, I often get a frustrated query in response:   “What am I supposed to think about?”

That is not a dumb question.   In fact, it might well be the real key – what should we think about?   “Go out and do some thinking” is so vague that it provides little helpful advice.   To help direct this thinking, I want to throw out 6 specific questions that you might ponder over the winter break.   Just some questions to bat around inside your head.  You are not looking for a right answer in general but rather the answer that makes the most sense for you.

Maybe most importantly, you are not trying to justify what you are currently doing but rather trying to figure out how your current practice might be improved ever so slightly.

(1) – How do you want your students to be different on the last day of class from what they are at the beginning of the semester?   Surely, there has to be some anticipated growth in each student or the class simply has no purpose.  For you, what should that change be?   Try to avoid giving a vague response.   To help faculty determine their goals, I like to ask the “fly-on-the-wall-question:”   If you were a fly sitting on the back wall of the classroom on the last day of the semester, what would you want your students to say about your class as they exit?   That will tell you a lot about the change that you want to see in your students as a result of your class.   Be careful how you answer this question because it should then become the guiding point for how you structure every aspect of your teaching.  If you want your students to learn to distinguish the music of Mozart from that of Bach by the end of the semester, then you build your class to create that outcome.   So, what outcomes are you seeking?   How should your students be different at the end of the semester as a result of your class?   If you want to become a master teacher, be bold when you set your goals.   If you have never considered this, I think you have missed one of the great questions in teaching.

(2) – How do you communicate with your students?   Most of us only meet with our students two or three times per week in a hectic classroom setting.    Those classes are often 4 or 5 days apart.   If you want to influence students, there has to be some method of conversing with students in a more efficient and timely manner.  How effective would any business be if the employer could only converse with employees for a few minutes 2 or 3 times each week?   In my classes, I use a lot of email.   I start sending emails about 6 weeks before the semester begins and do so on almost a daily basis once the semester gets going.   I ask questions, I direct students to interesting newspaper articles, I create puzzles for them to solve, I talk about what we covered in class, I give them review hints.   I tell the students that I will only send what I consider to be important emails but I do expect them to be read.   I cannot guarantee that they read every word but, at least, I have a way to provide direction and motivation on a daily basis instead of only 150 minutes each week.

(3) – How do you get your students to prepare for class?   I have always argued that the secret to an effective classroom environment is student preparation.   If students are prepared, they can participate in a meaningful way.   There is no limit to what can be accomplished in class.   If students are not prepared, all they can really do is take notes that they subsequently memorize.   They are just observers.   They cannot participate.   The quickest (although not easiest) way to improve your class is to convince your students of the wisdom of walking into class prepared.   Most students (and, by that, I mean virtually all students) go through a middle school and high school system that puts little or no emphasis on class preparation.   Therefore, in college, you face a group of students who have little idea as to why they should prepare for each class and how to go about doing that.   I guarantee that if you can increase student preparation in your classes, you will be amazed by the improvement in the learning process.

(4) – How do you test to avoid memorization and, instead, emphasize the development of critical thinking?   Often, in this blog, I have stated that students will learn based on how they are tested.   If you want to develop critical thinking skills, you have to convince the students that such skills are necessary for success on their tests.   As most of you probably know, I am not a big fan of student evaluations.   However, the one question that I look at religiously is number 8 (at the University of Richmond) which is something like:    Compared to other college-level courses you have taken, how well did this course call upon your ability to think critically and analytically?   I would bet that the results of that question are highly influenced by how well my tests emphasize critical thinking skills.   Over the past decade, I have worked more diligently on my testing than on any other part of my teaching.

(5) – What do you do after class to help students solidify the knowledge that they have obtained in class?   I am always amazed by how quickly understanding leaks out of the minds of my students.   I am currently reading an excellent book titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning (by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel).   One of the earliest things I marked in this book was the line:   “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.”   How can you help students do that self-quizzing so that they can jumpstart the amount they know and understand?   How can you help them build on what they learn in class rather than have it leak out of their minds?   How much direction and assistance do you give students after they leave your classroom?

(6) – How do you convince your students that they are capable of learning the material in your class and that this knowledge is worth the effort?   In life, attitude is everything.  If your students are convinced that they are stupid or if they believe the material has no positive value for their lives, a quality educational experience is going to be impossible to achieve.   Conversely, if you can instill a high level of confidence, every student can become a star.   It would be wonderful if all students walked into our classes with a deep curiosity and an openness for learning and a huge belief in themselves.   That works great in theory but not in practice.   Many students appear on the first day fully expecting to feel stupid and bored.   That cycle needs to be broken if the class is going to be a success for every student on the roll.

Six questions and no real answers.   But they are well worth considering before you walk back into the classroom in January.   Can you come up with a new and improved answer for one or more of these over the next few weeks?   Remember that teaching should always be about “experimentation” and “evolution.”

Do that and I am convinced that 2015 really can be the greatest year of your teaching career.

 
Happy holidays!!!

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