If you have followed my blog postings over the years, you know that I have several obsessions about teaching.
(1) – I believe in having a lot of communications with my students. Whether it is love, marriage, or a college class, things go better with communication. To the teacher, everything makes sense. Too often, to the students, everything is a mystery. I want to cut out as much of that mystery as possible. I think students respond well when they understand what is expected of them.
(2) – I believe in honest and frank communication. College students are adults. I never see any reason to feed them a bunch of nonsense. If you aren’t going to tell them the truth, you would be better off not to have the communication. I think you should stress the good as well as the bad. No one wants to get praise all the time and no one wants to hear how bad they are all the time.
(3) – I believe a lot in motivation but I think the core of motivation has to come from inside the student. I am not going to go through life with each student and serve as their personal cheerleader. At some point, they have to be willing to work hard because they want to achieve their own success. For better or worse, I think our society uses too much external motivation on students as they are growing up. Schools, teachers, and parents do so much pushing that students never have to consider (a) what they want to achieve and (b) how to do the work to get there. Many students have the unspoken motto: “Why push myself when someone else will do it for me?”
(4) – I want my students to become good at being students. I am always amazed by how little so many students know about becoming good students. When they leave my class, I obviously want them to know accounting but I also want them to walk away knowing how to be better students.
I gave a very hard test last week in my Intermediate Accounting II class. I knew it was hard and I meant for it to be hard because the material was hard. The class had been doing well but not as well as I might have liked. I wanted more from them than I was getting. You can always tell students that they need to work harder but every teacher says that (and often does not really mean it). Those warnings just bounce off most students.
Between the time that I gave that test and the time I gave back the graded exams, I had several points that I wanted my students to consider. In that limbo period, they are very open to suggestion. They often realize that they did not know the material as well as they should have and want to know how to do better. The test has caught their attention. As a teacher, you need to make use of that opening. So, I wrote them the following email. I wanted to communicate with them before the grade came back and got them distracted.
In many ways, the note is about having the discipline and the ambition needed to do the necessary work.
My students are 20-21 year olds. I don’t want them to do any work just because I have threatened to give them a bad grade. I want all of the students to do the work because they want to do well. I want them to do the work because they have that fire in their belly to succeed.
I didn’t get through to all of them but I believe that I did get through to some of them. As the teacher, open and frank communication of your goals and reasoning can be awfully helpful.
“I have not graded any of the tests yet and am not sure when I will grade them. They might be great or they might be horrible. I have seen plenty of both over the years. But, as I have said before, this test is only 20 percent of the grade. You’ve got time to move the grade up if need be.
“However, I want to assess how the class has done so far. And, to be honest, it is sometimes difficult for me to tell. I listen to answers and try to speculate as to what those answers tell me. Sometimes I am pretty sure I know what’s in your head but often I don’t.
“But, given that disclaimer, here’s my assessment. To date, I really haven’t seen anyone who seems truly obsessed with making an A. I usually have one or two students for whom the desire to make an A in this class is a burning passion. And, they usually make it. I haven’t seen anyone with that type of desire (or have not seen them yet). On the other hand, no one seems completely lost. Usually by now, I have a few people who seem to be desperately trying to fail. I clearly have not seen that.
“My guess is that most of you prepare each day for class like making a B or a C is fine. In truth, that is a decision you have to make. You are an adult.
“My one irritation is the number of times I find myself saying ‘we did this 48 hours ago – what did we do then?’ and then I get a look from you like we actually did it 48 years ago. There is always a connection between the classes. No matter what you made on the test today, the better you make that connection, the more likely it is that your grade will go up. In fact, the test was just one big interconnected problem.
“Want advice? Here it is. And, I have already given it to you before. Prepare for each class like I’m going to give you a very serious quiz in class that day. Of course, I am never going to give you that quiz but you have to prepare like I am. That is not easy.
“But, if you must have some outside person motivate you by giving you a quiz, then you probably won’t do much better than a C.
“People who prove to be successful (in school and after) find some way deep down in their dirty little hearts to motivate themselves to do the necessary work without having to have someone threaten them with a quiz.
“I do not want to motivate you. Heck, no. I want you to motivate yourself.
“I might change my mind once I’ve graded this test but I’m not at all unhappy with the effort to date in general. Yes, I would always be glad to see more students shoot for an A. I’m an ambitious person and I like ambitious students. But that is not the real point. What I want is not important. The point is whether you are satisfied with your effort and how you will adjust it going forward.
“We will not have a quiz on Monday. I guarantee it. The secret is: Can you walk into class having prepared like there was going to be one?
“See you Monday. Have a wonderful weekend.