Prime the Pump (What Does It Take to Become a Great Student?)

This website recently went over 146,000 total page views.  That is about 145,000 more than I ever expected when I began.    I want to take a moment this morning to thank everyone who reads these postings and shares them with other teachers.  Obviously, there is no real marketing of this site.  People tend to learn about it from other teachers.   Word-of-mouth.   So, thanks for sharing!!!  I sincerely believe that most teachers want to think more deeply about the art of teaching.   I hope this website serves as an occasional prompt for such thoughts.

This will be my 211th posting.   Several of these essays over the years have gathered more interest than others.   In terms of readership, here are the Top Ten in case you would like to check out some of the more popular postings.

--What Do We Add?  (July 22, 2010)
--What Is the Purpose of A Final Exam? (May 12, 2010)
--Introduction—Teaching Financial Accounting (January 7, 2010)
--Great Teaching—What I Learned from My Students (March 5, 2015)
--If I Challenge You to Become a Better Teacher, What Is Your First Response? (July 30, 2013)
--Fourteen Characteristics of Great Teaching (April 23, 2015)
--Conversation with Bob Jensen (October 8, 2013)
--What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher (August 21, 2011)
--A Good Suggestion (June 1, 2013)
--What Do You Really Want to Accomplish? (August 28, 2010)

Several of my most recent posts have dealt with becoming a great teacher.   I have always been fascinated by that jump from “good” to “great.”   I believe there are ways to make that jump successfully and I am not sure enough of us have that as our goal (in teaching as well as in other aspects of life).   Why stop at good?   Why not try for great?

But, today, I want to tell you something that you already know:   If you have great students, then becoming a great teacher is a much more manageable challenge.   Bright, energetic, and curious students are just easier to teach.   

Recently, I have been thinking about how I might get more great students.   I have almost no control over the quality of the students who show up in my class.   I cannot put a minimum SAT score limitation or a required GPA as a prerequisite for my classes.   I am responsible for teaching everyone who enrolls.   How can I turn more of them into great students?

I decided I would try to get my students for the fall to start thinking well in advance about what it means to be a great student.   I bet that few, if any, of them have ever really considered what it takes to be a great student.   If I can get them to consider the question, will that alone improve the chances that more of them will be great students during my course?  

Luckily, my students register in April for next fall and I have access to their email addresses.   I decided to try an experiment.   I wanted to encourage them to focus over the summer on what it really means to be great students.   I figured it could not hurt and it might have a positive effect on some of them.  

Below is an email that I sent a few weeks back to all of the students (I think it was roughly 60 in total) who have signed up for my class in the fall.   I have already heard back from a couple who seemed to be intrigued by the experiment.   Will this help?   I don’t know—that is why I am trying it.   If you’ve read this blog previously, you probably know that one of my teaching mottoes is:   Experiment, Evaluate, Evolve.

Email to students who are enrolled in my class for the fall semester:

Okay, I have your first assignment for the fall semester.   And, I dearly hope that you won’t go running away in horror and panic simply because I am giving you an assignment four months before the first class.   I actually think you will enjoy this assignment.   More importantly, it might make you a bit better as a student going into the fall semester.  That is a good goal.

In addition, I don’t want you to start trembling over the upcoming fall semester like some scared and frightened cat.   About two weeks ago, I gave the keynote speech at the Richmond College Senior Recognition Dinner.   One of my comments to the group was that Richmond would become a better educational institution when more of the students stopped being so timid.   At your age, a bold challenge should bring out the very best in you and not send you fleeing to drop-add.

That is one thing that you should demand of all your professors:   “Bring out the best in me!!!”

There are three steps to this assignment.

(1) – For many years, I have written a blog about teaching, primarily about how I teach here at the University of Richmond.   Over the years, the blog has had more than 140,000 page views.   A few days ago I wrote about the characteristics of great teaching.   I want you to read that blog entry because it will explain why I do some of the weird things that I do.   Reading should take you under five minutes.   I want you to read the whole thing but I want you to focus on 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12.   Those are the ones that will impact you the most in my class in the fall.

Here is the URL for the blog entry:

(2) – I want you to spend some time over the summer talking with someone (your parents, a trusted high school teacher, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger on a bus) about the topic:   What is the purpose of a college course?   At the University of Richmond, you have to take at least 35 of these courses.   What are they supposed to accomplish?  Surely, it is not so that you will memorize a bunch of trivia just so that you can pass a test.  Given the cost of the University of Richmond, that would be a darn expensive test.   Surely, it is not so that you can get a first job that you might well quit within the first year.   The goal has to be longer than the first few months after you walk across the stage at graduation. 

It is very hard to put a lot of work into a college course if you are not sure why anyone even takes a college course.   You are going to be stuck with me for a semester.   What am I supposed to do for you?   What do you want me to do for you?   In many cases, your parents are paying a lot of money for you to be in my class – why are they doing that?   What do they believe is the purpose of a college course?   You ought to ask them. 

(3) – Some time before the first class in the fall, I want you to write a short essay and email it to me.    Be sure to put your name on it and which class you are in.   In one paragraph (or more, if you wish), I want you to tell me what you believe are the characteristics of a great student.   You might well be a great student but, if you are not, you surely have known great students here at Richmond or in your high school classes. 

For you, what are the characteristics of a great student?

You’ve got four months.   I hope all three steps in this assignment intrigue you a bit.   I hope they tickle your curiosity. 

I am not sure what I am going to get from them.   I am not sure how I will use those essays.   But we will do something and maybe, just maybe, it will push a few more of my students to become great.   That would be fabulous.   I guess I will just have to wait and see what happens.

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