As anyone knows who has read this blog for long, I believe in communicating with my students.  I email them A LOT to (a) convey information, (b) provide encouragement, (c) point out things I want done better, and (d) provide hints and suggestions for success.  A good friend of mine, Steve Markoff at Montclair State, passed along an email that he had sent to his students recently.  It seemed so much like what I might have done that I asked Steve for permission to pass it along to you.  This is the kind of advice that helps students do well for you.

Notice that his suggestions do not drop in for no apparent reason.  They are not random.  He ties them to New Year’s resolutions.  I like having suggestions tied to a reason.  We are into February.  To convey this same email now, I might do so right after our first test with a note, “Here is something to think about as you review your first test.”  It is important to realize that there are really great times to convey suggestions—times when students are more likely to pay serious attention.  Figure out when your students are open to advice and pass some along to them.  Steve did it right at the start of the semester.  I might have used the first test for the same purpose.

(I must state that my favorite part of this email is Steve’s section titled “Embrace Struggle” and the comment about learning to walk.  I guarantee – I will steal that idea.  It made sense to me and it will make sense to my students.)

From Professor Markoff – an email to his students.
I have resolutions – teaching resolutions.  At the start of each year, I make a list of 3-5 things that I am committed to doing that will make me a better teacher in the semesters that follow.  I write them out, determine how I am going to measure how I am doing at them, and make a determined effort to improve in these key areas.

I’m thinking that most of you could use some resolutions – student resolutions – things that you can do to make yourself a more effective student.

So, allow me to suggest a few.  Specifically 5.  These 5 are geared toward my class, but I can tell you that if you make progress on these, not only will they help you in my class, they will help you with all of your classes and outside of class as well.  These are in no particular order.

Come out of your “learning comfort zone”

We all have preferred ways of learning, and that’s good. However, when you shut down and are closed minded to teaching that is being done in a different way, that’s not good.  Too often, after a student obtains a subpar grade in a course, they will blame it on the instructor and how that person taught.  As you move forward in your education, you will find professors with various teaching styles.  Also, some are plainly better instructors than others.  You have to deal with it either way, and your attitude will go a long way toward determining how well you adapt.  The same is true in the work world with managing or supervising styles.  You have to learn to work and be effective with all types.

In my class, ALL of you will have to adapt, as my teaching style is one which none of you have seen before, and you will not see it again here at MSU, except for me.  Your ability to achieve will be directly correlated with how well you can adapt and work with this system.  And that depends on your attitude.

Embrace struggle

Can you walk?  Yes YOU.  Do you consider yourself good at walking?  I bet you go days or even weeks without stumbling or falling.  I bet I have some of the world’s best walkers right here at MSU.  Did anyone teach you how to walk?  Did your parents show you a PowerPoint and give you a lecture?  “Here Bobby, today’s lesson is how to walk.  First, position your feet together as shown on the slide.  Then start to transfer your weight onto you left foot and then gradually toward the front of the foot as shown on the Exhibit.  Meanwhile, your right hand should start moving forward ever so slowly for balance, etc. etc.”

Have you had the chance to be around a toddler trying to learn how to walk?  Hard to watch isn’t it?  They keep falling and falling and stumbling and fumbling.  It looks like they are never going to get it.  And nobody gives them a lecture and PowerPoint.  There are no office hours.  They just carefully watch everyone around them and start to mimic.  If they fall, so what.  They start again.  And again.  And again.  Finally they get it.  That’s effective learning.  When it’s learned, it’s really learned.  It’s not forgotten.

In my class, I am going to assign problems. Some easier than others.  Some downright hard. I am going to ask questions in class.  Tough questions.  Why?  Well, first of all, if all I did was ask questions that were easy for you guys to answer, then you wouldn’t need me.  Same with the homework – we wouldn’t need the course.  It is through the struggle that you will develop the skills to tackle tough questions, just like the toddler learns to walk by falling.  When the learning does come, it is much more permanent and valuable.

Mindfulness & Awareness

I see a lot of students whose bodies are physically in class, but I can see that their minds are clearly somewhere else.  Maybe it’s something happening at home.  Perhaps it’s another class on your mind.  An issue with a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Whatever.  All of these things compete for your attention, but we only have 75 minutes together for a class and need to accomplish certain things. If you are going to get the benefits of class, you must be there 100%.  That means you must turn off ALL other distractions and focus.  That is one reason I do not permit laptops in the class.  When I ask someone a question and they ask me to repeat it – I know that their body might be there, but they are NOT really there.

Now some people want to pay attention when I ask THEM a question, but pay less attention when I am questioning others, which happens to be most of the time.  With my method of teaching, most of the benefit comes from you observing the exchange between myself and other students.  This is how you learn NOT just from the book, or from ME, but from OTHERS as well.

It’s only 75 minutes.  Be THERE.  You want me to be there for you when you need me?  Sure.  Be there for me when I need you.

Say goodbye to embarrassment

I play flute.  The first time I played at a recital in front of others, I went to play the first note and NOTHING CAME OUT.  Ooops.  Embarrassment city.  Guess what?  I did NOT lose my membership card to the human race.  I am still here.  I still play flute.  In fact, when I got done, everyone clapped and gave me a standing ovation.  It felt great.

I ask tough questions in class.  Some people hide along the edges and corners or in the back of the room hoping I won’t ask them any.  Some people don’t want to feel embarrassed by giving a wrong answer in front of their classmates.  Let me tell you 2 secrets.  Secret #1:  I don’t care whether you are right or wrong.  I only care that you are 100% prepared and can engage in the process.  Secret #2:  Most of the people who you are worried about probably have an even worse answer than you!  When you give an answer that shows me that you aren’t prepared, however, you are letting both myself and the team down – and THAT I don’t want or expect.

The reason I don’t mind wrong answers is related to what I mentioned above about struggling.  As a group, wrong answers allow us more opportunities to explore the steps and theory behind the correct answers.  They allow us to figure out TOGETHER why they are not correct or complete.  Some of my least effective classes have been ones where I got a high percentage of correct answers – because I wasn’t asking the right questions and forcing people to challenge themselves.

Be prepared.  Answer.  Get out of your comfort zone. Question other people’s answers.  If someone says something you don’t agree with, challenge them.  Be brave.  Really, nobody gives a darn whether you are right.

Have a sense of humor

Last but not least – relax and don’t take yourself that seriously.  Take life seriously.  Take your education seriously.  But don’t take YOURSELF that seriously.  It creates excess stress and it lessens your ability to think creatively and solve problems.

You will find that the better prepared you are for class, the less stress you will have worrying about me calling you and the more “THERE “you will be.  The more MINDFUL you will be.  The more AWARE you will be of what is going on around you.  The BETTER you will be at expressing your ideas,  The EASIER it will be to come out of your comfort zone, and the MORE SMOOTHLY you will be able to embrace challenges and struggles.

Will all of your students listen to such advice?  Of course not, they are college students.   I usually apply my rule of thirds:  1/3 of the students will pay close attention, 1/3 will pay some attention, and 1/3 will wonder why you are bothering them.  

However, over time, if you keep giving good advice (and the above is excellent advice), the words and thoughts will sneak beyond the students’ defense system and begin to slip into their brain.   By the end of the semester, most of them (maybe not all but most of them) will be considerably better students because you (yes, YOU) took the time to give them some darn good suggestions.   Communicate!!!

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