Tuesday, August 6, 2013

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)

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