Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dealing With The Truth

Before I start today, I want to repeat something I wrote recently. I have been creating these blog entries now for 54 weeks and, in that time, we have had 28,634 page views. That is fantastic but it is something that could never have happened without your help, without your passing along the URL to other folks who might be interested in teaching. So, once again, thank you for telling your friends about this site as well as you neighbors, relatives, coworkers, enemies, casual strangers, and even aliens from another planet. This blog goes nowhere without your help.

In the well-known movie “A Few Good Men,” the Tom Cruise character yells “I want the truth!” and the Jack Nicholson character responds “You can't handle the truth!” Great line.

When it comes to teaching, college professors will often assert that they want the truth about what is happening in class but I’m not sure they can handle the truth.

I was reminded of this exchange this morning in the Doonesbury cartoon in my Sunday newspaper. A college math professor (with a bow tie and suspenders, no less) is explaining “a very complicated proof. You can’t possibly track it without fully concentrating.”

Then, beginning to sound much like Tom Cruise, the professor starts getting to the very heart of the problem many of us face in college education today. “And yet it is perfectly obvious to me that most of you are either online or texting right now. Which is puzzling because on a pro-rated basis, the lecture you’re not listening to right now is costing you or your parents $175. So I’d love to know – what’s the thinking here? Why are you so happy to receive nothing for your money?”

Hmm, I wonder if he really could deal with the truth. Easy to ask the question but not so easy to deal with the answers if people start telling you the truth.

Isn’t it fascinating that a Sunday morning cartoon could cut so close to the heart of college education these days? But, does this guy really want the truth? Could he handle the truth if the students began to stand up and tell him the truth? Now, wouldn’t that be a fascinating cartoon. One by one, the students stand up and say “Sir, I’m not paying any attention to your lecture because . . .” and they give him the truth. (As an aside, if you have never watched the video made by the Kansas State students about education, you really owe it to yourself to watch it

it’s at that point that you begin to hear the truth from students.)

When it comes to education and our classes, how many of us really want the truth that much? The problem for our all of us is that if we are given the truth, then we feel some moral obligation to take action. It’s easier (as the cartoon professor does) to just imply that the students are to blame. I hear that all of the time when I am out and about giving teaching presentations.

What do I think the truth is? Here’s my guess at the truth. I believe that students underperform in classes for one or more of three basic reasons.

(1) – they feel no sense of urgency (“I’ll defer thinking about this stuff until I have to”)
(2) – they are bored
(3) – they are lost and have a sense of hopelessness

If you can solve all three of these issues, your school will build a statue of you and put it in the quad.

For better or worse, these are issues that a teacher can address. You are not a helpless victim. But you have to want to improve before you are willing to take real action. And, you must realize that these are complicated issues that can only be addressed over a period of time by some careful thought and planning.

I’ll talk about urgency today and defer student boredom and being lost to some later time. If you can add a tiny bit of urgency to any class, I think you will see immediate improvement.

When I chat with people about any goal they are trying to achieve in life, I often hear lines like “I have trouble getting started” or “before I know it, I’ve wasted an amazing amount of time.” If you can add in a bit of urgency, most people begin to get up off the couch and get moving. A bit of urgency goes a long way in getting people to work. Without a sense of urgency, there are just so many more interesting things in life to do.

Okay, most of you who read this blog will be teaching a class in the next couple of days. How have you inserted urgency into the equation so that your students are more likely to prepare for class and then pay close attention during class? If your answer is that “I expect my students to prepare and pay attention in class,” then I have a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan that I want to sell you.

I can give you two quick ways: one that I use in my classes and one that I don’t use. However, think of ways that your own teachers added urgency.

(1) – I teach by means of the Socratic method so each day I give my students 3-10 questions they should be able to discuss at the next class. Then, as soon as they walk in for the next session, I start peppering them with questions based on those original “conversation starters.” If students are absolutely sure they will be called on, it creates a sense of real urgency – they are more likely to prepare and pay attention. It really does work. It removes the general student feeling that they are just there to take notes. They know that they will be put on the spot.

(2) – If I had a class that was too large for the Socratic Method, I would change my strategy. At the end of each and every class (the last five minutes), I would ask the students to write out answers to one or two questions that were covered in the preparation work or within the class discussion. Those answers would count X percent of their overall grade. You will be surprised by how carefully students pay attention if there is a grade effect added at the end of the class. Suddenly, this material has an urgency to it – some question is coming up in just a few minutes that has to be answered.

A related issue to urgency is grading. If all of your students know they are going to get either an A or a B, why should they ever feel a sense of urgency? I truly believe there has to be some possibility of making below a B in a class or students will have no reason to be concerned at all. I usually give 50 percent A’s and B’s in my classes but I also give 50 percent of the grades that less than that. The fact that a student is not going to get an automatic A or B in a class does, I believe, push them to feel a bit of urgency about the material.

What’s the truth? In your case, I don’t know what the truth is. But if you feel that your students are underperforming, one issue to address is “urgency.” Students are human beings; without a sense of urgency, there is just not much reason to get up and do those things that need to be done.

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