Tag Archives: teaching

Start the Semester Strong

None of us entered our field because we wanted to alienate students. Yet unwittingly, much of our traditional first-day agendas do just that. Reading the syllabus as a contractual obligation, warning about late work and poor attendance, and being the “sage on the stage” can create the opposite of an atmosphere that will excite students about our courses.

So just what will engage our students from the get-go? At Spartanburg Community College, new faculty watch a video called Voices of Our Students that was created by a student intern, reports Dr. Tena Long Golding. The video contains students’ perspectives about their college teachers and reveals that students describing a “great professor” use words such as honest, relatable, engaging, concerned, invested, and enthusiastic.

Students in the video also describe what makes for a “favorite professor.” They list the following desirable traits:

  • are consistent and predictable
  • believe in students’ ability to succeed
  • entertain when lecturing
  • help students having trouble by being available and offering feedback
  • make connections between course content and the “real world”
  • motivate students using a variety of methods
  • open discussions after lectures
  • share personal anecdotes
  • view students as individuals

As we start our new academic year, perhaps we can use these student impressions to help us create more meaningful courses—and maybe even become those “favorite professors.” Below are some ways to start the new semester off on the right foot.

Offer a meaningful promise about what students will learn. Tell students what they will take away from your course. A statement such as “Everything you read and write about in this course will be relevant to your futures as business professionals” will likely grab their attention.

Engage the class with multimedia. Our millennial students are used to being dazzled by images on their screens. Can you create or show a short video? Play a podcast? Project photographs? You’ll wake up even the most uninterested students if you appeal to their need to view learning at least in some part as entertaining.

Demonstrate consequences of poor classroom behavior. Perhaps you can make your own cellphone go off or respond to a text message while you are speaking. While going over the syllabus, you might tell a “sad story about Missing Student” who skipped so many classes and got so hopelessly behind that she [fill in the blank.] Present your pet peeves to students in a creative way.

With a little effort and a few tweaks to the standard way of starting a new course, this may be your best year of teaching yet!

Do you have any first-day activities or strategies to engage your students? St

Okay with Being Labeled “Tough”

by Janet Mizrahi

Perhaps I’m a “hard” teacher because I went to college when it was unthinkable to turn in a paper late or not complete assigned readings. I hold my students to the same standard. Or maybe it’s my mother’s influence. A 30-year teaching veteran, she advised me to always start out tough and set high goals. You can always get easier, she’d tell me, but you can never get tougher.FEB2016_shutterstock_93835213

Mother knew best, and I wear the mantle of a tough teacher unapologetically. As an instructor whose students will likely never have a writing class again, I feel it is incumbent upon me to show them a slice of real life, where bosses will have little patience for late or careless work. I know I do, and my courses reflect my expectations.

It’s not easy, granted. We all live or die (or at least stay employed) by how students rate our courses, but I’m certain driving students hard is in their best interest. Not long ago, I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal that backed me up. Here’s what it said that corroborated my approach.

Constructive, even painful feedback is key to achieve expertise. Research has shown that top performers in every field pick “unsentimental coaches” who challenge and drive them. While my friend Amy didn’t pick her first writing teacher, she does credit him with teaching her to write—and that was after he marked her first college paper with a “D,” crossed it out, and replaced the “D” with an “F.” Was she mortified? Absolutely. But when she recently reread the paper, she agreed, with chagrin, that he was right.

Rote learning has gotten a bad rap. Rote learning is not much in favor these days. Why make students memorize anything if the answers can be found in a calculator or by searching online? Because research shows that repeating skills leads to mastery. I’ve watched students learn. As writing instructors, we know that the more students practice, the better their work. Is it fun? Maybe not, but it’s crucial to learning a skill.

Failure IS an option. What message do we send our students if we allow them to think their poor work is acceptable? What good do we do their future employers by sending these students into the workplace unprepared? Knowing failure is an option keeps my students from thinking they can disregard assignments or expect passing grades from sloppy, careless work. I’ve found that just their knowing I’d fail them makes them do their work.

Strict trumps nice. See above. If you believe your students have the potential to be better, it’s up to you to hold them to that standard. That’s hard to do when you’re their buddy.

Grit wins every time. It takes tenacity to make it through a tough teacher’s class, but research backs up the notion that students whose teachers push them hard make the greatest gains. My youngest daughter started at the bottom of the heap in her college ballet class. Still, she looks back fondly on her first-year ballet teacher who repeatedly told her, “That was HORRIBLE. Do it again.” His bothering to correct her meant she wasn’t hopeless, and she knew that. I’m convinced her grit, her sheer will to improve, took her through four difficult years until she received her BFA in Dance.

Praise should be earned. I remember being crushed when I received a B on a college English paper. But I got over it and went on to become a professional writer. I wholeheartedly believe giving false praise hurts more than it helps. When I tell a student “You nailed it!” that student beams because she knows I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. If you really want to boost your students’ self-esteem, teach them to be better writers so they feel the confidence of achievement.

Resilience comes from coping with difficulty. We keep hearing about the stress our students are under, and I see it regularly. But we also know that learning to cope with stressors and life’s challenges makes us stronger and more resilient. Isn’t that the goal? Offering our students the support to improve while honestly assessing their work will net stronger, more resilient citizens.

My experience tells me my mother was right about starting tough and just as right about easing up once the standards have been set. I know this because at the end of each quarter, my students write confidential narratives assessing their experience of my course and of me. I don’t expect 100% positive ratings, and I do not receive them. But the majority give me high praise for forcing them to work hard. “Definitely challenging, but worth it” is a common refrain. I also regularly receive unsolicited e-mails in which former students tell me how grateful they are to have learned the skills I taught them. I even get and return hugs as the students file out on the last day of the quarter.

It’s not always easy being the tough guy—but it’s worth the effort.

How do you feel about being labeled tough or easy? Share your views with us!

Can Technology Fix the Lecture?

shutterstock_160647422A professor stands in the front of the class and delivers a lecture. Students may jot down notes—they may not. A discussion may occur—it may not. Questions may be asked—they may not. Students take exams, write papers, complete class evaluations, and receive grades. We hope they learn.

While this model of the college lecture may not be going the way of the dodo quite yet, even major research institutions—historically more concerned with obtaining grants than teaching undergraduates—are starting to get on the accountability bandwagon. As pressure grows for universities to show that their graduates walk away from college with more than a parchment and debt, more administrators and instructors are looking to data to improve student learning.

The lecture’s critics claim the teaching model is nothing more than a cheap way for colleges to deliver information to large numbers of students, a curse to researchers duty-bound to teach and a chore to withstand for fidgety undergraduates. It is no wonder that as the price tag for an undergraduate education rises, so does attention to quantifiable results, and one of the first practices being examined is the lecture.

To address the issue, some campuses use clickers to gauge student comprehension during lectures. Via remote control, the devices allow professors to test understanding by posting responses to questions instantly. However, more sophisticated ways to garner data are being developed.

The University of Michigan uses LectureTools, a program that allows students to follow lecture slides on their own devices as it collects data that measure their reactions to the lecture. Students can take notes right on the lecture slides, respond to questions, and ask questions in real time. The application’s inventor, Prof. Perry Samson of the University of Michigan, designed the tool so that instructors could use actual data to gauge the effectiveness of their teaching. As a professor pulled between research and teaching, he understands his colleagues’ reticence in adopting new technology, so he designed the tool to mesh with individual teaching styles.

Instituting large-scale changes to such an entrenched model of learning as the lecture will not be easy. Ordering professors to change doesn’t work, says Martha E. Pollack, a provost at the University of Michigan. To sweeten the pot, some universities offer grants in hopes that framing new learning approaches as research opportunities will appeal to professors. The goal is not to proscribe one way of teaching but to excite professors about innovation, she says.


What are your thoughts about lecturing? Share your experiences with us!


Source: Kolowich, S. (2014, August 11). Can universities use data to fix what ails the lecture? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Can-Colleges-Use-Data-to-Fix/148307/