Go Ahead, Give Yourself an “A”

Possibility

Students from across the country are about to begin a new academic year.  It’s natural that many will take a little time to reflect on past successes, near-successes, and far-from-successes to consider what it will take to earn better grades this time around.

I am encouraging every student to approach the start of the academic year differently this time.  Instead of waiting to receive a test score or graded paper from a professor mid-way through the course, begin the year with a mindset of possibility.  That’s right.  Go ahead, give yourself an “A”.

What does that mean?

The concept of giving an “A” can be credited to Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, teacher, speaker and co-author (alongside Rosamund Stone Zander) of “The Art of Possibility”.  Zander’s teaching practice involves telling all of his students on the first day of class that they are an “A”.  They really and truly are an “A” and that is the grade they will receive at the end of the course.  But there is one condition.  That condition is that each student must submit a letter the following day but dated for the end of the term explaining who they will have become by the end to justify such an outstanding grade.  The letter begins, Dr. Mr. Zander, I got my “A” because…

Giving an “A” comes with many benefits.  First and foremost, it has the power to transform relationships.  Students no longer see themselves in competition with others in their class, program, dorm, family, whatever.  There’s no more “I’m better than him”, “She’s better than me” thinking going on.  Instead students can start to focus on themselves and the possibilities that exist within and around them.

Second, it just feels better.  Being an “A” allows everyone to function from a much happier place.  It’s certainly a better place to be than in the 90% percentile, below the median, or 46 out of 50, for example.  Being happy has a funny side effect of being contagious.  Go ahead, see what happens when you smile at the next person you pass on the street.

Third, mistakes can be celebrated.  Recognizing that we all make mistakes and that mistakes are what help us learn and discover some amazing things can really open up worlds of possibility.  What if we weren’t afraid to share a point of view in the classroom, try out a different style during our presentation, say hello to the person sitting next to us, get involved in that start-up committee, and the list goes on.

The link below will take you to a 14 minute video of a Ben Zander speech delivered to an auditorium full of teachers on this exact topic.  Believe me, it’s worth the watch…

The practice of giving an “A”, whether “given” by the teacher or “given” as a gift to yourself, frames your efforts as a possibility to live into rather than an expectation to live up to.   From my experience in the classroom, more students need help with the former, not the latter.

I highly recommend all students (and teachers at any level) read or listen to “The Art of Possibility” with a particular focus on Chapter 4 – The Third Practice:  Giving an “A”.

The benefits of living in a world of possibility exist.  I can see it now.  A classroom where students are willing to let go of fears and try new things, where students truly want to grow and are willing to create and follow a unique path to get them there, and where students care about themselves and are capable of demonstrating empathy.

So go ahead, do yourself a favour, give yourself a gift and live like you are an “A”.

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August 27, 2013 · 12:58 pm

What Do Professors Do Anyway?

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I know I am not alone when I say that if I hear something along the lines of “You’re done work now, right?  What are you going to do with all this time off over the summer?” from another student, staff member, friend or even family member, I’m going to scream.

I have to admit that it has taken me some time to educate my own family about what exactly I do at the university when I am not doing the well-known work of prepping for classes, teaching classes and grading papers/exams/reports that most professors are known to do.  I don’t necessarily expect my students and friends to know exactly what it is that I do but this article is an attempt at a first step.  My intent in sharing this information is not to tell you how busy I am and how hard my life is – because it’s not.  I just want those of you who don’t really get what it is that professors do to come away with a better understanding and realize that we are all really quite different.

In most institutions, professors are expected to spend their time on three main activities:  research, teaching and service.  A traditional breakdown is something like 40/40/20 where 40% of the time is expected to be devoted to research, 40% to teaching and the remaining 20% to service activities.  Some professors actually spend much more time on research activities, especially if she has a major grant or is eligible for some type of course release.  Other professors spend more time on the teaching function, especially if research activities are not well supported or encouraged at her institution.

Most people think they understand the “teaching” portion of our work but there may be a few surprises.  It is important to know that faculty members are rarely handed a “course in a box”.  It would be amazing to receive such a gift with a complete course outline (including choice of text or other reading materials); assignment schedule; prepared lectures, including complete PowerPoint support slides with built-in relevant, appropriate and interesting videos, lecture notes and active learning exercises; and an evaluation list along with the evaluation tools themselves and grading criteria to boot.  In the real world this rarely happens.  There are some exceptions like the year I was one of seven faculty members delivering the same content to multiple sections of the same course where consistency was of the utmost importance.  We still met as a group regularly to develop evaluation tools and assess the course design but this was done as a group, rather than individually.  This has been my only experience in post-secondary education where the course development work was shared.  The bottom line is that there is a lot of work involved in designing a course and keeping it relevant.

In addition to the tasks related to course development and delivery, most faculty are also involved in activities like counselling students, curriculum reviews, transfer credit assessments, textbook reviews, articulation agreement consultation, and program reviews.  We are also expected to keep on top of the latest teaching and learning developments which can range from better understanding how new technologies might be implemented in the classroom to the state of academic integrity at the institution.  This information is often acquired through independent searches and reading as well as workshop and conference preparation and attendance.

So what is research anyway?  Well, it depends on the individual and on the discipline.  It’s no wonder that many outside of academia struggle to understand what this involves. I’m going to speak from my own experience so please forgive me if I leave anything out.

Some of the activities related to research include literature reviews (for me that included finding, keeping notes and organizing close to 50 academic and non-academic articles for my most recent publication); experiment/hypothesis design; hiring and managing research assistants; research ethics board(s) approvals (I had to seek approvals from two different boards for a recent study); data gathering and analysis; outlining, drafting, writing and editing; as well as meetings and correspondence activities with co-investigators and other related parties.   The ultimate end products of research tend to be published works and presentations.  Publishing may take the form of papers (or journal articles), books, textbooks, magazine articles, blog posts and case studies to name a few.  Presenting might take place at academic conferences where academics and professionals from various fields congregate to examine and share information on relevant issues but might also include presentations and workshops for other professional associations or groups.  Most faculty also act as academic reviewers for associations or journals and are expected to review the work of other academics and to provide feedback that is used in publication decisions.

The service work of faculty again varies very much by institution and often by academic rank.  More junior faculty are often trying to build up their CVs for promotion and tenure decisions and may get involved in more committee-related work than their more senior peers but again, that is not always the case.  The type of work that would fall under the service category includes both work at the institution (internal) and work outside of the institution (external).  Internal work might involve participating in hiring committees, program review processes, budget committees, awards committees, fundraising committees, faculty associations and student club advisory positions.  External work might involve using expertise to participate in various community initiatives or committees (for example, volunteer boards of directors), professional associations, judging business plan and speaking contests, delivering workshops or speaking events, participating in alumni events, and so on.

The point I wanted to make is that teaching is just one component of the work of academics.  So, next time instead of asking about our four month “holiday”, ask us about our research and writing work.  You’ll sound really informed and we’ll be really excited to share with you.  Just make sure you have a few minutes to spare.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5537915034/”>opensourceway> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Reflection -> Awareness -> Improvement

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Wouldn’t you agree?

So why is it that so many students fail to make changes to their routines and habits when they are disappointed, stressed or unimpressed when they consider their academic performance over the past semester?

You know I have an answer.  It’s because they fail to reflect.

What is reflecting anyway? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reflection as both (1) a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation and (2) consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.

I like to think of reflection as a personal self-assessment.  For me, it involves taking time out of my busy schedule to purposefully think about a particular event, experience, encounter or exchange.  I honestly schedule in the time because that’s how I roll.  I think about what happened, how I felt, how others reacted and if I would change my approach or actions in a future situation.  And this my friends is the purpose of reflection.

So, why bother reflecting?

Reflection brings about awareness which can bring about positive change which is what continuous improvement is all about.  We all should be taking more time to reflect in our daily lives.  In fact if we did, I bet the world would be a better place.

Alright.  How do I get started?

Reflection isn’t something you should do only “at the end” of a project; however, that seems to be the most obvious time to pause and evaluate the event, activity or work performed.  At a minimum, students should be taking the time to reflect after receiving feedback (either in the form of a grade or actual written feedback) on each test, exam, paper, report or assignment.  I recognize that some evaluators rarely take the time to provide written comments so if they do, consider it a bonus.  Another even better time to reflect is before the feedback (i.e. grade) is provided.  This timing will remove any bias that results from an unexpected good or poor evaluation of the work.  Reflecting at the end of a semester or academic year is also an excellent time to pause and consider the timeframe as a whole.

If you’re not sure what you should be thinking about, here are some questions to get you started:

  • How did this experience differ from your expectations?
  • How did this experience make you feel?
  • What was the best and worst thing that happened during this experience?
  • What was your biggest challenge?  What enabled you to overcome this challenge or what prevented you from overcoming this challenge?
  • Was there anything which made you uncomfortable or discouraged during this experience?
  • What helped or hindered you through this process?
  • How did this experience challenge your assumptions and stereotypes?
  • What you would change if you had the opportunity to repeat this activity?
  • What skills did you develop or improve as a result of this experience?
  • How will this experience benefit you in the future?
  • What have you learned about yourself?

I highly recommend keeping a “reflection journal” which can take the form of a dedicated notebook or a simple Word document.  The act of jotting down notes will help you internalize your takeaways and apply what you have learned to the next experience.

Now you know what to do and how to do it.  Do yourself a favour and schedule in some time to reflect as this academic year comes to a close.  If you seriously apply the learnings from this effort to new experiences (i.e. new coursework) you should see results.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/gemmabou/7226316180/”>Gemma Bou</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Show Up or Ship Out

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One of the reasons I decided to start this blog was to provide myself with an outlet to blow off some steam.  And that is what I will do in this very post thank you very much.

Students,

  • I know that your brain has just about reached its capacity for critical and creative thought at this point in the academic year.
  • I know that the winter has been long and the sunshine scarce.
  • I know that you are getting anxious to change-up your routine.
  • I know that a long weekend is just around the corner and your mind is drifting…

But you still have to show up!

And by show up I don’t just mean occupy space and deplete oxygen in the classroom.  I mean be a contributor to your own learning and not just a consumer of information.

Being a contributor does not necessarily mean that you have to actually speak up in the class (although that is what my students are expected to do on a daily basis).  In fact, in some classes asking questions or sharing an opinion is not the norm at all.

Being a contributor means showing up with the intention to learn.  For one, having a sheet of paper and a pen in front of you, whether the paper is filled with your well-thought out notes from your advance reading of the material or simply a blank piece of paper (forget about the laptop – that’s too distracting).  It means taking notes and forming questions.  It means thinking about what you’ve just listened to, watched, observed.  It means asking questions, providing an opinion or debating an idea.  It means being resourceful and seeking answers to your questions.  Again, these things may not happen in the class itself but could take place in the context of the weekly seminar, in a group of peers or even just by yourself.  It means shaping the direction of your thoughts and perhaps even the direction of others.

When you are a contributor you are the creator of your own learning.

Being a consumer means waiting for the professor to tell you what to write, what to think, what to do next.  Like a shopper, it means waiting for others to share ideas and opinions and then picking the one that you like best.  It means waiting for something to happen before you take the next step.

When you are a consumer you are a clog in your own learning.

So what are you?  A creator or a cog?

There is no time like the present to change your behaviours.  Don’t wait until next term or next academic year.  Today is a great day to refocus. Start by analyzing your past behaviours.  Ask yourself how what you are doing both inside and outside the classroom that puts you in either category.  Start small.  Identify one element you want to change and do it.

Woody Allen claims that “80 per cent of success is just showing up”.  Increase your chances and most definitely follow that advice.

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Stop Multitasking Already and Focus!

Time Lost

How many of you are proud of your ability to “multitask”?  How many of you would add this skill to your resume/cover letter or even share it as one of your strengths during a job interview?

If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, STOP IT NOW! 

Multitasking is not something to be proud of and should be avoided at all costs.

Study after study points to the dangers of multitasking in both the workplace and in everyday life.  Has anyone heard of the distracted driving laws in place all across Canada?  See Christine Rosen’s article entitled The Myth of Multitasking for more fascinating examples.

What if I told you that multitasking in the classroom or while studying is ineffective?  This is absolutely true according to my observations.  But if you don’t believe me (fair enough) you can check out the findings from a recent study conducted by researchers from York University’s Department of Psychology who found that students who use a laptop to browse the Internet while listening to a lecture performed poorly.  Get this.  It’s not just the offending Internet surfer who is affected.  The study also found that students sitting near the offender were impacted negatively.  This is pretty powerful stuff.

If you want to experience firsthand how you are personally impacted by multitasking, try this exercise I picked up about a year ago from a professional organizer.  In order to complete this exercise you will need a timer, pen/pencil and this sheet:Multitasking

This is what the finished product will look like:

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Follow these instructions:

  1. Read all instructions first (always a good idea).
  2. Set timer.
  3. Complete section 1.  Fill in the lines by alternating between the two lines (i.e. enter “M” first, 1 second, U third, 2 fourth, etc.).
  4. Document time to complete section 1.
  5. Set timer.
  6. Complete section 2. Fill in the letters on line one first and numbers on line two second.
  7. Document time to complete section 2.

What did you find?  If you are like the students who have completed this exercise in my classes, it would have taken you approximately 60 seconds to complete section 1 and 26 seconds to complete section 2.

What does this mean?  You could save a significant amount of time in your day by FOCUSING.  Forget about bouncing back between your textbook, email, text messages and phone calls.  Remove all interruptions (it is possible to close your computer screen and turn off your cell phone) and get the work done!

Try the 60/40/20 rule and see if it works for you.  This is what you do:

  • 60 minutes of uninterrupted work.
  • 40 minutes of email/voicemail/text checking and returns.
  • 20 minutes for a break.

Why is this so hard to do?  I don’t really know.  But I do know that those who focus will perform better both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Are you up for the challenge?

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To Get Support Show Support

Helping HandYesterday’s class brought tears to my eyes.  But in a good way.

Does this happen often? Not really.

In my decade or so of post-secondary teaching I have experienced the odd classroom situation that has made me want to run as fast as possible from the room, curl up in a corner of my office, grab my tea and a box of kleenex and let loose.

Why?  Because I care.  Even though I’ve learned to distance myself from student issues, disappointments and frustrations, they still get to me from time to time.

Fortunately yesterday’s class was nothing like that at all.  In fact, by the end of class I wanted to call for a group hug and tell my students how proud I was of them.  You know, a regular “Kumbaya” session.  I’m writing this post to share what happened and why what happened is so important to student learning.

The Story

Yesterday, groups of students from my management class presented details of the business ventures they have been working on for the past three months.  This is a huge project involving lots of coordination, research, writing, number crunching, organization and group drama.  The project ends with the presentation.  It’s generally a happy day for most students as they are truly relieved that the process is over.

After each group presents, the class is invited to ask questions.  It was during this time that I observed a major difference from past years in the classroom tone.

In the past this Q&A session has let’s say, been a little tense.  Students on the receiving end are often on the defensive because they are really completely invested in their ideas and research.  It’s their baby and they will do what it takes to protect it.

Students on the delivery side are often on the offensive.  I believe that some students feel that in order to make their project seem more impressive it’s a good idea to pose questions that are designed to make other groups feel inadequate and uncomfortable.

That did not happen yesterday.

Yesterday’s questions were posed with a genuine desire to better understand the business plan that the presenting group had developed.  Even though some of the questions were similar in content to those posed in the past (remember, the ones with the bad intent) there was something different about the delivery that made the difference.

For the first time I had a presenter respond to a question with “That’s a really good idea.  Thanks for bringing that up.”.  I also had comments from students that simply recognized the hard work, something unique about the idea or presentation and the excellent job put forward.

The supportive and encouraging atmosphere created by the students was what brought the tears to my eyes.  I was so proud of them.

So What?

A supportive environment must be present in order for most students to take risks.  And taking risks is necessary to foster student learning.

What do I mean by risks?

I mean asking questions of faculty and fellow students.  I mean sharing information and opinions.  I mean asking support services on campus for help or guidance.  I mean reaching out to fellow students and simply making an introduction.

Let’s face it, some students don’t necessarily need a supportive environment to take risks.  They would do so regardless.  That’s their personality.  But many students are in no way ready to take such risks, especially in the first couple of years of university.  They NEED this environment in order to grow.

What About You?

What do you need to do in order to be in a position to take risks?  How can you help create a supportive environment?

Here are some ideas:

  • When you are “shopping” for institutions or classes, pay particular attention to the “community feel” you get from the place or from what past students have experienced.
  • Get to know your fellow classmates.  Just say hi.  Start the conversation and you’ll be surprised how easy it takes off.
  • Do the work so that you can be an active contributor in class or in discussions with your professor or fellow classmates outside of the classroom.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to work in small groups (seminar/tutorial sessions or simply smaller class sizes).
  • Work well in groups.  Know the tools that exist to help manage plans and progress and use them.

Don’t wait for someone else to create a supportive environment for you.  Take initiative and do it yourself.

Support is a funny thing.  You get more when you give more.  So, are you doing everything in your power to be supportive?  If not, what can you do to be more supportive in your classrooms, in your family, in your life?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandajuice/562954687/”>Mandajuice</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

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Effort vs. Success

Long JumpThey are staring at me.  Wondering when I will give them some attention.  Waiting patiently for me to begin making colourful markings in green ink (my colour of choice for grading – much brighter and less harsh than traditional red ink).

They are a stack of reports sitting on a shelf.

Just like everyone else, professors can come up with many reasons and many ways to procrastinate.  Hey, I haven’t written a blog post in a while.  I better get on that today!

When it comes to grading, the one that gets me every time is the fact that I’m just not ready to face the disappointment.  Disappointment that some students didn’t do the work leading up to the testing point.  Disappointment that some students didn’t bother to ask questions when they were unclear about the material.  Disappointment that some students didn’t plan their time well leading up to the test/exam/paper.  And ultimately disappointment that some students simply didn’t understand that effort ≠ success.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some reports will be very well done.  Accurate calculations will be performed, insightful comments will be made and clear and concise writing will flow.

At some point I will take a deep breath, let out a big sigh, pick up my green pen and begin the work.

The grading will get done.  It always does.  But it doesn’t end there.

At least one student will visit me in my office after the report is returned.  Most often this student won’t ask for feedback (remember, there are lots of colourful marks on the paper) but will let me know that she just doesn’t understand her grade because she tried really hard.

What does “trying hard” mean anyway?  And what does “trying hard” have to do with success or a good grade?

The bottom line is that “trying hard” (whatever that means) doesn’t equal academic success.  Just because a student thinks she worked hard doesn’t mean she deserves an A.

How would you define “trying hard” anyway?

  • Does it mean doing what is required (and only what is required)?
  • Does it mean time spent on the task?
  • Does it mean being resourceful when problems arise (like asking questions, doing internet research, hiring a tutor, etc.)?
  • Or does it mean something else?

For the past number of years I have used an activity at the start of one particular course to help my students “recalibrate their excellence meters” (thanks to Keith Starcher for his article on this activity).  The activity forces the class to think about what success means and how it relates to “trying hard”.  Here’s what happens.

At some point during the normal introduction of the course I ask the class for volunteers to participate in a standing long jump competition.  I don’t actually teach phys. ed. by the way (I’m actually an accountant by training).  Most students look a little alarmed at first but then seem to warm up to the idea of doing something different.  I have at least six volunteers – three jumpers and three “coaches”, discuss their strategy for jumping the farthest before the competition begins.  Some teams decide that stretching first is a good idea.  Others decide that taking off their shoes will help them out.  Some take a few practice jumps and others take off heavy layers so they won’t be weighed down.

Then the competition begins.  There are usually lots of laughs and smiles.  I proceed to mark where the jumpers land and eventually send everyone back to their seats.  Instead of announcing the obvious winner I say something like “Although some students jumped farther than others, I believe that everyone put in a great effort.  Everyone tried hard so we will award a gold medal to everyone.  What do you think?”.

Most of the time the students protest this idea.  The one year this didn’t happen I was shocked but maybe more on that another time.  The discussion that follows is often about how success is defined in sports and then how that definition carries over to success in the classroom.  The class always reaches the conclusion that although everyone “tried hard”, clearly one student jumped the farthest and therefore is the winner.

I conclude this discussion by encouraging the class to focus on figuring out how to produce excellent RESULTS rather than being content with the illusion that so-called excellent EFFORT is enough.

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