It is not failure until you give up!

I am reminded every time I meet with a prospective student, at how unprepared they really are to make this transition to college, and how even less prepared they are for “the real world.”  So often they have been “protected” from failure that they aren’t really equipped with the necessary persistence to be prepared for the sacrifice and disappointment that is a part of the journey.

This generation openly shares their successes, and broadcasts them on social media, but they do not invite one another to see their failures or even the hard work that leads to those successes.  With “helicopter parenting” resulting in less resilient students, partnered with this public competition, it is no wonder students experience the level of anxiety that they do; but they do not talk about these feelings with one another, and seem completely unaware of how common it is.

I have seen too many students whose first instinct is to run, feeling isolated and unaware that others are having an identical experience and that they are not alone in feeling this way.  I have found that one of the best things I can tell a student who comes to me anxious and overwhelmed is how absolutely normal it is, as though giving them permission to be anxious somehow lessens their anxiety.  What ideas do you have for teaching persistence and resilience?  How can we help students understand that feeling overwhelmed should not mean they give up and go home?

–Patricia Smith, Schedler Honors College & Department of Leadership Studies

I Touch the Future…

Image of Challenger Astronaut Team

NASA.gov – Remembering Challenger

This week the United States quietly remembered the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and its crew. I never realized as a third grader, watching the shuttle explosion, the effect a simple teacher could have on me and my life.

But 30 years after the shuttle explosion, I have come to realize how much of an impact teachers and teaching can have on a learner, including myself.

Before Christa McAuliffe, whom was on the space shuttle crew as the first teacher in space, left on the shuttle mission she said two statements I’ve thought of often as an educator:

“I touch the future…..I teach”   and “I think the reason I went into teaching was because I wanted to make an impact on other people….” (p. 72)  As a life-long educator, beginning in public schools and now training new teachers, I entered teaching for the same reason as Christa….to make an impact on future lives.

I have learned much over the years about learning theories, methods, and processes, all of which are important in learning and education.  But often, some of the simple means of touching the future of our students are forgotten when focusing on other ideas.

One of the most important ways of touching future lives of our students that may seem more difficult to remember in higher education, is building a relationship with our students, including getting to know them as individual learners.

Some basic steps I’ve found for building a relationship with students in higher education includes:

  1. Learning each student’s name
  2. Finding out more about the students by connecting with them before and after class and encouraging their input during class discussions
  3. Smiling at students (really simple—but makes a huge difference)

These steps seem simplistic, yet I’m reminded daily of their importance. Some class settings in higher education may appear to be more effective for building relationships than others, so while writing this blog entry, I decided to ponder the different higher education settings I’ve been a part of as a student, and what my instructor or professor did in those settings that made the difference (especially compared to other settings where the instructor’s actions had an opposite affect). Here were some ideas I recalled:

–I remember the science professor who, although she taught a class of more than 80, had was easy to talk to and had a pleasant personality.  She encouraged students to ask questions in an auditorium type classroom, making sure she took volunteers to speak from all over the auditorium, and made herself available to answer student questions in and outside of class.  Compared to another science professor who did not respond to questions in person or even via e-mail, was rarely available, and did not encourage questions in class, the first professor definitely impacted my learning in her class, teaching, and future in a positive way.

–I remember the physiology teacher who recognized that, although many in her class were going into medicine, many of the rest of us were not. She set up her class so all the students could succeed.  Although the class was in a large auditorium setting she provided many opportunities for hands on learning (bringing in models of the brain—and even a real brain for us to learn from). She broke us up into groups often and utilized active learning techniques throughout the class. She even provided an optional second final which used skills beyond memorization of body parts and functions so all of us could find ways to succeed.

–I recall the statistics professor who recognized that, although we all could gain understanding of statistics, we were not all going to be great statisticians like herself.  She focused as much on understanding as she did on skill, and allowed for group learning and teaching, which benefitted all learners in her class. Compared to a high school math teacher I had who purposefully put all of the slower math learners in the front row, refused to allow students to work together, and showed us one example each day and then told us to read the chapter if we had questions (instead of asking him), the statistics professor was a much more effective instructor whose teaching had a positive impact on the learners in her class.

Building a relationship with students begins with the basics I listed, but involves so much more.  Embracing students as individual learners, being a reflective instructor, listening to students, and finding flexible ways to assist all members of a classroom to understand the content, assists in building relationships with students.

We all touch the future in our classrooms and impact lives, whether our impact is effectual and purposeful is determined via the relationships we build with the learners in our classrooms. Hopefully remembering simple ideas to help make a positive impact can improve the future for those we teach, as well as for ourselves.

What educators in higher education have impacted your teaching? Please comment with ideas from your reflections of how to build relationships with students and what teaching techniques have impacted your life.

–Mary Pearson, Department of Elementary, Literacy, and Special Education

Hohler, R. (1986). “I Touch the Future….” The Story of Christa McAuliffe. Random House: New York.

Carrots and Sticks

I teach economics, and if economics was renamed to “incentives,” it would not lose much meaning.  Those teaching economics constantly focus on incentives.  Everyone responds to incentives.  We all know this.  Yet, I was asked this question at the National Economics Teaching Conference: “As teachers, do we try to set up incentives in a way to maximize student learning?”  The answer is probably no.

First, I think we must be honest about students’ incentives.  Why aren’t all students genuinely interested in the subject and very eager to participate and listen to every word of our lecture?  Because they aren’t.  That’s why.  The majority of your students want you to cancel class, and they want you to end class early, and they want you to give them easy exams.  While students may want to learn cool stuff along the way, they also consider the class a barrier they must jump over to reach their goals.  Of course, we teachers are very different creatures; if UCA did not require us to take our annual sexual harassment and diversity seminars, we would all still take them on time and with great enthusiasm.  Sure we would.

In our classes, we do provide some standard incentives for our students to learn the material.  We may have several types of assessments, including exams, quizzes, homework, etc., which are supposed to tell us whether or not the students met the learning objectives.  The students must learn something or be punished with a low grade.  However, are we structuring those assessments in the most effective way possible?  Does the incentive structure challenge the high-performing students, inspire the “C” students, and wake up the low-achievers?

I have tried a couple of things to improve incentives in recent classes.  They seemed to have worked.  You may have already tried them.  I wanted students to attend class and have the reading done before class.  Only the very high achievers would have done this if I didn’t have pop quizzes.  So, I had pop quizzes, and I weighted them heavily.  I had near 100% attendance in that class.

I used another type of incentive to encourage students to go to the writing center, especially the ones who desperately needed it.  If I was to offer a few bonus points for going to the writing center, only the high-achievers would have done it.  However, when I told them that they would get two additional weeks to turn in their paper if they go to the writing center, then almost every student went to the writing center, especially the procrastinating low achievers.

I also provided incentives for productive work to be done when I missed class.  I was scheduled to attend a conference and I did not find a substitute, so I scheduled student presentations.  The students were graded on their presentations based on a rubric/summary that other students complete.  Part of the presentation grade was the summary of other presentations.  It was successful.

Of course, like many of my colleagues, I occasionally offer extra credit for seminars, events, etc. that relate to the class, though it seems the high achievers are the ones who typically attend those.  I am sure that there are many other ways to improve the incentive structure of the class, either with carrots or sticks.  I would like to learn more and better techniques.

–Thomas Snyder, Department of Economics, Finance, Insurance & Risk Management

All the Classrooms Are a Stage

Teaching a college course is a performance art.  In the past ten years, there has been one frequent comment on my student evaluations that has stood out the most:  “Thank you for not using technology in your class.”  While this comment may strike some as baffling (given the recent rush to integrate technology into the classroom), it is not surprising given the problems with overusing technology in the classroom.  The first problem occurs when a professor wastes precious class time troubleshooting faulty classroom technology.  Secondly, blinking flash graphics and a bright screen in a dimly lit room are a disaster for students who suffer with ADD and ADHD.  Thirdly, overuse of technology leaves many students feeling cheated out of a valuable (and expensive) college experience.  Why should one have to attend class if all the lecture notes and study guides are online, and the majority of class time is spent watching TED talks videos?

Students love a good story; especially, if the story is told by someone who has developed the art of storytelling (mobility, hand gestures, voice inflection, and interaction).  As a college teacher, every time you step into a classroom full of students, the spotlight shines on you:  the main actress/actor on a stage.  Try to frame your lectures in the form of a story that has to be told, and rely less on the sterile, blinking digital pixels on a projector screen.  Think critically about the role of technology in your classroom.  What are your stories about the limits of classroom technology?  What are your most memorable classroom experiences that did not involve the use of classroom technology?

–Phillip Spivey, Department of Philosophy & Religion

Coaching and Mentoring in Teaching

Days ago, I learned something online related to coaching, and I found out it can be very useful in my teaching and mentoring for students experiences. The similarity between coaching and mentoring is that they both help employees/students to grow, that’s why many of the principles are related to each other.

In the video I learned a step called: GROW- Goal, Realities, Option, Will, and I would like to organize it with my own explanations: Purpose/Reason, Listen/Speak, Questions/Visioning, Future/Action.

1. Purpose/Reason – Goal

Everyone has his or her goal while doing something. That’s why when things occur, I like to go back to the very original root of the purpose and reason behind the intention. Many other factors blind our eyes, and we focus on trivial details instead of the BIG goal. In the coaching process, if the students’ internal and essential goal is revealed in the conversation, that will help them focus on the REAL problem instead of all other factors.

2. Listen/Speak – Realities

It is very easy to have a bad impression about a problematic student who’s already performing badly, that’s why I fond this tip very helpful to open myself for listening to any type of talk, and most importantly without past judgment. Even if I may have thoughts about the student, I want to switch to focusing on my goal, which is to make all students successful – that will help me listen to the realities.

3. Questions/Visioning- Options

When I just realize myself in a coaching process with one of my students, I keep pulling myself back from giving direct suggestions from my perspective.  Instead, I ask questions and let the students figure out their own solutions. I guess it just takes time to adapt as well as get use to asking questions, and I do find that some solutions from students themselves are those I cannot think of sometimes.

4. Future/Action – Will

The purpose of coaching is to come up with a good plan/solution that can help in the future. In this part, I always want to get back to the goal again, and NOT focus on the previous fault/mistakes. Instead, I ask students for their own commitment for the solution they find.

Start coaching today in your teaching; it will make a difference for students.

–Li Zeng, Department of Art

Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

Well, we’re back.  Back from a winter break that, I hope, was a time of family, friends, fun, and (dare I say?) rest.  In my conversations with colleagues and students, though, I’ve learned that the winter break included many challenges and losses; I know it did for me. As such, many of us have mused that we need a break from the break!

So, how do we get back into the swing of things?  How do we motivate ourselves to rise above the recent challenges and life events and bring life and energy to our teaching?  I asked these questions of myself, and, fortunately for me, a departmental colleague provided an answer without even knowing I was questioning.

As I walked to my car to leave at the end of a recent workday, I bumped into my colleague in the parking lot.  He said to me, “What a great time of the year!  I just love the spring semester; there’s such a sense of new beginnings and hope.”  He elaborated on the promises of spring:  consistent sunshine and warm weather, the bursting forth of flora and fauna, and beginnings of new lives for spring graduates. I realized, in spite of my own recent losses, I needed to focus on the newness spring promises to each of us.

Often after a break, getting back into the swing of things is challenging. By bringing “newness” to our teaching, we can revitalize our students and ourselves. What “newness” are you inserting into your teaching this semester?

–Susan Barclay, Department of Leadership Studies

This is a Strange Place!

I remember sitting in a junior-level Spanish Lit classroom at a small university outside of Madrid, Spain, feeling excited to be in a new place and to learn new things. The sun is sparkling through the patio window, and the professor is passionately explaining the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. One small problem – I can barely understand any of it! I had just arrived in the country and was not able to understand the Spanish dialect spoken so rapidly. Not to mention, no one could find or contact my host family, but that’s another story. This is a strange place!

Now, the tables have turned, and I am the one in front of the classroom. I love the many international influences on a college campus! Colleagues, students, events – there are so many opportunities to learn about other cultures without leaving Conway. How many international students are sitting in MY classroom thinking, “This is a strange place”? Am I doing all I can to welcome them and to help them acclimate to their new surroundings?

For example, I am familiar with the fact that other cultures write some numerals differently (such as a 7 or a 1). However, last summer I began to realize just how challenging this difference can be. I was teaching math in a small elementary school in Guatemala. It was surprisingly tough remembering to write the numerals in the manner the kids are accustomed to. When I would forget (and I did many times), it would look like a totally different number to them. This experience really made me empathize with one of the many challenges of an international student.

What specific challenges do international students face in your classes? What can you do to help ease the transition? How can you better empathize with them? I challenge you to encourage an international student this holiday season. Ask about their traditions. It’s a great opportunity to connect with students and make them feel welcomed at UCA. It may not be such a strange place after all.

–Loi Booher, Math Department