Over the years on this teaching blog, I have talked many times about the importance of experimenting in order to improve as a classroom teacher.   I often claim that my true motto is:   EXPERIMENT    EVALUATE    EVOLVE

Some experiments work in class while others fail miserably.   You have to keep trying new strategies to see what you can learn.   Today, I want to describe an experiment that took six months to complete.   And, although I cannot prove it, I personally believe it was a wonderful and glorious success.  

I often say that great students simply know how to be great students.   Other students find greatness mystifying.  They seem clueless about the essential steps that would lead to their being better students.   I have argued that the first class any student should be required to take in college should be “What It Takes to Become a Great Student and Why I Should Seek That Goal.” 

Last April, after students had registered for my fall classes, I sent them all their first assignment by email.   Receiving an assignment four months before the first class tends to lead to a lot of student eye rolling.   To fight off that cynicism, I tried to make the assignment interesting and helpful.  

Here is what I wrote to the students (a bit edited for length).   I wanted them to spend some time over the summer thinking about the characteristics of a great student and actually put those thoughts to paper.  Here is that first email assignment.

“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 student going into the fall semester.  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.   A few days ago I wrote about the characteristics of great teaching.   I want you to read that blog entry because it explains why I do some of the weird things that I do.   Reading this one essay should take under 5 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 characteristics that will impact you the most in the fall.  And, I want you to start thinking about greatness.

“(2) – I want you to spend 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 class?   At the University of Richmond, you have to take at least 35 courses.   What are they supposed to accomplish?  Surely, it is not so that you will memorize a bunch of trivia just to enable you to 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 in a lot of work on 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.   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?

Believe it or not, all but one of my 59 students for this semester wrote essays and emailed them to me describing the characteristics they perceived in great students.   I responded that I wanted them to save the essays because we were going to use them during the semester.   I said no more and have not mentioned this assignment again until about two weeks ago.  At that time, I gave the students a completely optional assignment.   Here, once again a bit edited, are my directions:

“Back during the summer, I sent you an assignment.   You asked to do a couple of things and then write an essay about the characteristics of being a great student.   I figured you have been a student for most of your life so ascertaining greatness is something you are well equipped to do.   As I received these essays, I stored them on my computer and sent a note instructing each student to keep a copy because we would use them at some point during the fall semester.   I assume that you still have your essay stored some place. 

“This is an optional assignment.   I want you to take your original essay on the characteristics of a great student and write an essay (of whatever you think is an appropriate length) where you evaluate your work so far this semester in Accounting in comparison with those characteristics.   I am not looking for baloney.   I want honesty.   I think self-assessment or maybe self-reflection is a helpful exercise.

“If you wish, you can also say that you have decided that your original characteristics were wrong and talk about how they should be changed.   But, after you settle on the characteristics of a great student, I want you to assess your work in this course to date based on the characteristics YOU selected. 

“Then, I want you to tell me what changes, if any, you plan to make in this course over the remainder of the semester.   I often refer to these as ‘half time adjustments’ which I think are extremely important (in a class and in life in general).   Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.   So, what is your game plan for the rest of this semester?   Again, I am not looking for nonsense.   I am looking for an honest evaluation and assessment of changes you want to make (if any).

“Based on what I think of your paper (quality of writing, honest evaluation of how you have done so far, reasonable plan for the rest of the semester), I will add up to 3 points to your grade on our second test.”

Okay, I offered three points on one hourly exam in exchange for an honest self-assessment based on their own chosen characteristics of greatness.  (Three points is the equivalent of raising their overall class average approximately one-half point.)   How did it go?
--53 of my 59 students completed this assignment.
--Virtually all of the students wrote at least one page and most students wrote nearly two pages or more. 
--Almost all of the students were extremely insightful as they discussed their progress to date.   Of course, I have two test grades from them already so they know that I have a pretty good understanding of how they are doing.   I think that makes them more insightful.  

I will include some of my favorite comments at the bottom of this blog essay.   The comments were very interesting plus I was able to write back to them.   When a student wrote, for example, “I just feel stupid” or “I never take time to prepare,” I could respond to them personally.   That’s something I don’t get to do as much as I would like.   I will have over 80 students next semester – it is hard to give individual feedback.   I was glad to have the opportunity.
Maybe I am just being overly optimistic but I think all three of my classes have gone extremely well this semester but most especially since they completed this optional assignment.   It is easy for students to get in mental ruts and put their work on auto-pilot.   They start doing the same thing over and over without thinking.  I wanted them to stop and contemplate their own efforts to date and decide whether adjustments could be made that would improve results.

It took six months to get through the entire cycle of this exercise but I loved reading what they had to say and getting the chance to respond.  Reading their thoughts was fascinating.   

This is one experiment that you might want to try.   I certainly believe it helped some of my students.

Here are a few things mentioned by my students in their optional essays that caught my attention.

“I originally thought that I knew the meaning of hard work and discipline, but this class is unique in that it has pushed me to a new level of understanding.”

“The biggest trap now would be getting comfortable and losing the sense of urgency I have developed.”

“Frankly, I hate studying accounting.   I dread it every single day and I put it off until the last possible minute.”  

“This class is helping me understand how to be adaptive and I am trying to apply this to other aspects of my life.”

“Truthfully, I can handle my grades suffering in a few classes during this transition (to a more critical thinking based approach) but I cannot handle the mindset I am currently stuck in.”  

“I do not think the right question is ‘What are the characteristics of a great student?’   Instead, the question should be ‘What are the characteristics of being a great human being?’”

“I can acknowledge the attitude I should have, but adapting that attitude to my learning has proven to be a completely different and much more difficult task than I expected.” 

“I very rarely go over my notes or ask questions after class, and I must focus on following up classes better in order to improve as a student.”

“I feel like a total hypocrite.”  

“I need to get more sleep.   The more rested I am the more energy I have and the better I learn.”

“I have failed myself by not even bothering to ask you what you think I should do.”

“I can recall a few times where I have challenged the material we learned by asking why things happen the way they do, but I want to work on doing this more.”

“It has been a struggle in terms of finding the balance between school work, extracurricular activities and relationships, which are equally important to me.”

“Before the first test, I let my ego get to my head and I do not believe I tried to improve myself after each class.”

“A small group of 5 or so students including myself meet for a half hour to 45 minutes prior to class to discuss the material that will be covered in class that day.   I believe this really does help me walk into class prepared.”

“Humans are creatures of habit and similar to inefficient lifestyle choices that settle in out of sheer repetition.  Bad academic choices can settle in if we don’t remember why we’re going into that classroom every day.”

“I was so nervous on the first day of class of getting called on and not knowing the answer that I was actually shaking.   I was like this for a few more classes before I realized that getting an answer wrong in class was not the end of the world.”

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