Tuesday, August 6, 2013

July 2013 Help Students Find Their Strengths

Encouragement comes in many forms.  One source is the modeling and wisdom of others, often older others.  Nurturance is another.    Left, my cousin John, a longtime resident of the peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area, is very mobility-challenged but unstoppable.  His answer to “How are you this morning” is “terrific, if you don’t want details.”   Right, a tender moment at my retirement party in January 2012, captured by colleague Kasey Wilson. This photo is a still from a video collage Kasey created as a gift and posted at

There are three dimensions of higher education.  Our mission must be to educate both the mind and heart, to develop both skills and ethics, to cultivate good professionals who are good people.  Our purpose must be to help each student grow in intellect and character, to help each learn how to do things  right and how to do the right things, to help each learn what is necessary for both a productive livelihood and a productive life.
~ Louis Schmier, in POD Listserv post 11/12/08 (lightly edited)

“I will not be able to attend today’s workshop (sorry—I’m overloaded!!)
but could really use some assistance in this area.”
from faculty email to a Teaching Center regarding a workshop on coping with overload, quoted in
Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching
~ Douglas Robertson

Executive Summary    Among attitudes underpinning college success are persistence and self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to reach a learning outcome or personal goal.  Both are learned.  Students often reach our classrooms bitterly discouraged, disspirited and disabled in this respect, troubled by doubting their own competence.  Many don’t understand that people learn different content in different ways and at different speeds, and that one can learn to compensate for deficits by working harder or differently.  In this message, consider how to show students their strengths and how to encourage them to raise their own personal bar to achievement by attitude shifts.  The central issue is to offer hope and prompt change by reducing perceived risk and fear of failure

“Some students are just not cut out for school”    In a moving piece on YouTube, Michael Wesch (a professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Kansas State University) reports hearing this often from frustrated faculty colleagues.  For one view of higher education’s problems and promise, watch nine minutes of an hour-long video (A Portal to Media Literacy) at   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4yApagnr0s  in which Wesch speaks to faculty at the University of Manitoba.   Also learn there what Wesch means by “a crisis of significance” in education.  [We have used the first ten minutes of this video as a discussion kickoff in the new faculty morning segment of Fall Orientation.]

Examine your beliefs   What are your own beliefs about student competence?  Skip Downing, a long-time community college instructor and the founder of oncourseworkshop.com, has made a career of combining faculty development with student success strategies.  In the item linked below, “Choices of Successful Students,” one of TLC’s FAQs, you can get the flavor of his program.  Oncourse runs an annual conference and nationwide workshops; and Skip tirelessly promotes the exchange of success strategies among faculty:The 8 Habits of Successful Students

Explore its web site for more:  http://www.oncourseworkshop.com/, including a self-assessment you can also offer to students:  http://college.cengage.com/downing_assessment/jsp/questions1-8.jsp?customizer=pre
Teach students to assess and understand their personal academic strengths.   The link just above is a free, online self-assessment tool that prompts thinking about the behavior and attitude variables that underlie success.  Such an exercise could be a good way to open conversation with students about these variables.  From there, students can learn how to determine personal learning preferences.  Many simple, free, online, instant-scored instruments are available on the web, and John Collins, a colleague at the University of British Columbia, suggests asking students to do any three, and then triangulate the results:  In what ways do the three instruments agree, and how do they disagree?  Do the assessments match your self-perceptions?  What areas would you like to work on?  How can one compensate for areas of relative weakness?

Embed skill instruction in content classes.   As you become aware of student skill deficits, you can re-focus on needed skill development without losing content time.  One way to do this:  offer a mini-workshop on some specific skill in the last five or ten minutes of a class: e.g. tips for learning from a text, skillful navigation of a multiple-choice test. By using time at the end of a class, you allow easy opt-out by students who don’t need this help.   If you know the deficit is widespread, use a little class time to build a T-chart, asking students to identify and focus on specific behaviors related to a concept like participation or preparation for class.   The T-chart concept, originated by David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota to help develop team skills, is explained at  Strategies for Helping Students Develop Team Skills and you can develop simple ways of doing this with a class.  

Teach students that attitude is a choice and makes a difference.  Students often are stuck in negative or self-defeating attitudes or behaviors.  In a newsletter from the online Adjunct Success program, Richard Lyons points to the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Students.”  It is available at http://www.vetrol.com/temp/ASeNews15Oct08.pdf.

Go S.L.O.W.   Crawl, walk, run.   In “What the Army Taught me about Teaching,” Martha Kinney underscores the importance of scaffolding:  building understanding, confidence and competence in small steps.  For instance, a professor might identify and assign specific steps of preparing a research paper, instead of assigning the paper and assuming that students know all the steps.  The scaffolding concept is neatly explained at http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/webdesign/Scaffolding/ and the Kinney paper (which I’ve used as a workshop tool in prĂ©cis form) can be found at http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2008/07/17/kinney

PostScript on Skill-Building:  Some years back, my colleague Susan Van Zanten (then a faculty developer at Seattle Pacific University) commented in her newsletter:  A 2007 survey called “How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today’s Global Economy,” asked 305 top corporate executives what they most wanted to see in a job candidate.  The top three choices were “teamwork skills,” “critical thinking and analytic reasoning skills,” and “oral/written communication.”  While today’s global economy has changed radically, I think it’s a fair assumption that these three skills are now needed more than ever, in areas ranging from ministry to teaching, public relations to medical care, and performing arts to banking.  We certainly can use them in higher education.   How do you help students—undergraduates and graduates alike--develop these skills within your discipline?  Do you explain to students why you assign group work or oral presentations, what the connection is between their learning activities and their future life?  

Honolulu Community College has, over the years, developed one of the most frequently visited faculty development sites on the web.  The organizing brainchild behind this is Jerry Cerny.
It is chock-full of links to practically anything you might need, from The Secrets of Study Success to Five Basic Types of Questions, to Ed Nuhfer’s Knowledge Survey, a way of determining what students think they know about your content without giving a test, to Achieving Success with Adult Learners.
You can find these things using a search engine, but HCC has collected them for you in
a colorful and user-friendly format, in the Teaching Tips Index.  

August 6, 2013: THE VALUE IN RISK

...and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.
- Anais Nin (French author, d 1977)

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure.  It is a powerful obstacle to growth.  It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.  There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling.  If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure -- all your life.
~ John W. Gardner (1912-2002)

Faculty members saw more improvement if they conducted a mid-course evaluation, read the feedback, and discussed this input with their students. Faculty members saw the most improvement in their ratings when they also made changes based upon student feedback.
~ Whitney McGowan
in Faculty and Student Perceptions of the Effects of Mid-Course Evaluations on Learning and Teaching
a 2009 doctoral dissertation for Brigham Young University

This energetic young couple, Kari Brunson and Brandin Myett, own Juicebox, a fresh-juice popup currently inside La Bete restaurant in Seattle.  They will  expand to their own space by Fall 2013.  While each had long-term interest in food, they entered the business in nontraditional ways.  For ten years prior to the business Kari was a professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet.  Each took major risks to build the business together.  

Executive Summary   A few years ago, I was asked to accompany the young son of a colleague to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer school, one of a few premier training spots from which professional dancers launch.  In a field of more than 350 aspirants, Number 88 was anxious but poised, graceful and wonderfully, proudly professional.  He wasn’t admitted.   Every audition is a trial and a risk.  Taking that risk, and moving forward no matter the outcome, is what professional artistic growth, perhaps all human growth, is about.  But for him, the audition was a courageous first step in the game.  Success can’t be guaranteed, but learning can be.  This month I offer a challenge:   As you plan future teaching, consider something new.  Think: small steps, easy to do.  
Modest changes in teaching strategy, besides enlivening your work (no small gain) can have dramatic positive effects on your own deep satisfaction with teaching, can improve student engagement, can nurture your relationships with students, may even affect their decisions to stay in your course or in a course of study—or to stay enrolled.  If you don’t now make changes routinely, consider what you could shift easily and would enjoy doing.  Eight suggestions are below, but you’ll think of many more.  These things won’t make you an instant expert but you can easily explore any of them in five minutes or less.   In most, there are links that can help you decide if it’s worth trying, and a bit of encouragement.

1--Add writing to your class   For years, fearing I would be overwhelmed by poor writing, I resisted giving writing assignments.  But at some point came to understand (a) that writing prompts thinking and (b) that it  doesn’t always need to be evaluated or graded.  You can add small writing exercises quickly and easily, and without making more grading work. By doing so, you can build community among students, increase engagement and student thinking in astounding ways.  If this is one of your goals, here’s a way to start:  In five minutes or less, read  Encouraging Writing  

Then, find or borrow a copy of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, which brims over with ways you can add writing to support your teaching plans, without adding more work.

2--Connect to your students before class starts   Contact with students before classes start makes a powerful impression.  It’s a simple matter (without creating special distribution lists) through class rosters.  In the 4.12.10 online Inside Higher Education, Dartmouth’s Joshua Kim blogs about his interview with Lucretia Witte, a Dartmouth senior who investigated student perceptions of technology in their learning.  Her suggestion:  Ask your students to take a pre-course survey one week before class starts. How do they learn best? What aspect of the course topic interests them most? What kind of assignments do they like? Is there any skill or aspect of the course that they feel apprehensive about? Best case, this allows professors to set the bar high for personal investment in the course, allows them to tailor the course to the student interests, sends a message that the professor genuinely cares about the student experience, and takes the first step in establishing that invaluable dialogue. Worst case, the professor gets some info about their students and doesn't end up changing the course.  Our own Marc Gilbert wrote about his way of doing this, and about the results, in a 2009 article at http://cait.hpu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Issue-411.pdf  Pre-class Greetings and the ‘Virtue’ of Building Student Trust.  Read it in five minutes or less.  [Many more ideas about creating personal connections with students, an important variable in retention, is at http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1008 ]

3--Tap a technology that may make you nervous but locks in tech-savvy students  For instance, have a look at Google Jockeying, in which search-savvy students are put  to work during classes to engage them in serving your curriculum:  http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7014.pdf This is an engaging less-than-five-minute read and the Educause Seven-Things series (http://www.educause.edu/7Things) offers dozens-more capsule articles on new technologies.  Or learn about building a collaborative document in Google.docs, something you can use to collect and respond to student feedback in a transparent way:  all students can see all comments and your responses to them . . .

4--Brainstorm creative ways around an irritant  For most teachers, there is some student behavior that brings out the worst in us.  For some, it might be side talk in a lecture; for others, net-surfing or cell phones or grossly off-topic questions.  These problems are so common that solutions are readily available in a web search; but maybe you don’t want to take time to search, or reached a dead end, or need more ideas.  Helping with these things is a favorite task for many faculty developers.  Make an appointment with developer, or write me (I truly welcome such inquiries:  coach.faculty@gmail.com) if there are no developers where you teach.   

5--Open part of your syllabus to student authorship    Wild and outrageous?  Maybe.  But letting go of some control can be refreshing, and gives students stake in that part of your class. The two-minute start: read Using the Syllabus to Lay Down the Law at http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/using-the-syllabus-to-lay-down-the-law/   If this gets you moving, read Singham’s full article  Creating a Collaborative Syllabus, at http://cait.hpu.edu/kb/?p=229
Then decide which small part of your syllabus to build with students.
6--Use a rubric with one assignment   If you’ve never used a rubric before, get an overview and begin to consider how rubrics could help improve student performance or engagement.  The best start I know is an article published in Educational Leadership:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/feb00/vol57/num05/Using_Rubrics_to_Promote_Thinking_and_Learning.aspx   Also see Rubrics:  from Hawaii Pacific University's website  There’s even a rubric built to teach online students the meaning of “quality contribution” in an online discussion thread where students are expected to respond to one another’s posts:  See “Make Quality Contributions” at http://cait.hpu.edu/kb/?p=226

7--Build student skills by focusing on specific behavior     There are times when students in a class seem painfully unaware of the behavioral meaning of skills we (incorrectly) assume they understand.  At such times, an open discussion with the class can help, using a T-chart to point to behavior.  For example:  prepared.  You can ask: Is it reasonable for you to expect ME to come prepared for class?  What does that word mean in specific behavior?  Then segue to what prepared means for students.   I’m talking about a discussion, not a syllabus list.  Get started by reading our HPU’s item:  Teaching Your Expectations & Learning What Students Expect of You   and move on to details about using cooperative learning in higher education:  Susan Ledow:  Cooperative Learning in Higher Education

and perhaps the most powerful of renewal strategies . . .

8--Plan a simple mid-course evaluation   Mid-course assessment of teaching, when you ask for and act on student feedback, has the power to transform your teaching.  Recent research supports the hypothesis that mid-course questions increase end-course ratings.  Start at Renewal Key:  Self-Assess Your Teaching  Within that item look at links:  Stop-Start-Continue or Nelson Mid-Term Assessment.   Check the quote, and the research source at the top of this message:  mid-term assessments that are both (a) shared with students and (b) acted upon are associated with higher end-of-term ratings.  

I always welcome comments and questions in email.
I welcome workshop inquiries.
I travel often on the east coast and west coast.

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482

802-985-0088 (ET, leave a message or use mobile number)
808-781-3294 mobile (text or voice)