When group activities Go RIGHT….

Today I planned a group activity for my 8am class. Mainly because I have struggled to this point to peak their interest and interaction to the level I prefer (it’s 8am so…. I have thought about providing coffee). HONESTLY….. In general, sometimes it seems students approach the educational experience like a five-course meal and they wait for you to bring them dish after dish. In an attempt to move away from serving up an educational experience, I am shifting to the POTLUCK dinner approach to my classroom. I believe this empowers the students to “bring their knowledge and experience” to the table & I rely on them to contribute to their educational experience. I don’t do interactive group activities every class, but I try to do some type of group activity at least every third class.

I “know” interactive group activities are supposed to enhance the learning experience. I know that it is a great strategy to help students apply knowledge. But what if they don’t bring anything to the table? What if it was a disaster? What if they didn’t work together, or what if they didn’t give a good effort? I was also nervous about letting go of the control I would normally have with directed discussion, lecture, and individual activities. I worried that if the activity is not successful, it will be a waste of time and devalue their experience in the classroom. This activity I planed was 60 minutes… so it was a large portion of class.

This experience taught me that my students (in this class) can cooperate and learn in this environment. Reflecting back on this activity, I wanted to share a few things that I think worked and will plan on doing again. I have learned from past experiences and have adapted my teaching strategies to better serve student’s behavior.

  1. I put them into groups based on their social strengths and weaknesses.
  2. I told them how long the activity would take (45-60 minutes).
  3. I played music & changed the genre every 10 minutes to remind them to stay on task.
  4. I told them that if they were efficient with their time they would get out of class early. They ended up getting out 15 minutes early( 90 min class).
  5. I let groups that finished prior to the allotted time an opportunity to step outside the classroom to socialize, go to the bathroom, or play on their phone. (this was only about 3 -5 minutes but they were over-joyed ….)
  6. I designated different people to complete different parts of the assignment so that everyone had an opportunity to write & present their section to the entire class.
  7. I also created a competition between the groups for the most creative idea. Although no prize is really awarded, I can tell the students give extra effort to impress their peers.

In summary, I gave these students guidelines and provided a favorable environment for them to work together. The students were able to apply the knowledge they had learned from the previous class period. I also believe that this group of students is more mature than some of my other classes. This particular class is a senior level course & their behavior indicates that they are ready for the workplace. I normally would not tell students that we will get out of class early if they cooperate. However, the class was motivated to work together, was efficient with their discussion, and had high interaction amongst the group members.

I don’t know if Potluck style learning a ‘scholarly term’ or if I should really even make that type of comparison. But … I do know that my students gave more interaction, and I could physically see them come alive with learning the material in ways this class has never done. I plan to continue with group activities and provide more opportunities for students to ‘bring knowledge & experience’ to the table.

My Reflection on Teaching

Honestly …. Sometimes I find teaching emotionally draining. I have worked hard at separating myself from my teaching standards. But teaching is personal… or at least it should be. I care about my students and their wellbeing. However, I encounter situations every day that challenge me as a teacher. In an attempt to relieve some of the stress from teaching, I will reflect about some of the major topics.

I realize that I teach upper level courses. Upper level courses by definition should require more thought, studying, and higher level thinking types of activities and test. Thus, the nature of my courses will be harder if you only compare them to lower level general-study courses. I have gradually become at peace about this reality. It is not me that makes the material hard… the material itself is harder. I have an incredible task to develop critical thinking skills, scholarly writing, and conceptualization. All of these task cannot be accomplished through straight lecture and memorizing material. Students have to apply the knowledge they have in ways they may have never done.

Because of this reality, some students think that my class is “so much harder” or “so much work”. In part, this is because this is true. Sometimes I feel as if I am asking students to walk in the snow barefoot up a hill… lol.. JK… but seriously… here are two stories to explain.

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Scenario #1: Recently, a student said to me in class… “That’s just a lot of work to have to print out a journal article and bring it to class for in class discussion credit. Can we just print out the abstract?”

I paused… more for composure than anything… This was not the first time this student had openly complained about assignment directions.  I replied “This is college. Do it or don’t do it. If you want credit, you will do it the way the directions read.”

I could tell this specific student was upset with my response, but I could tell that another student was pleasantly surprised. The other student added “It’s really not that hard to print off an article.”   (I was so glad to have support from another student at this point.)

I stand by my comment to the first student. This is college… Do it or don’t do it. I hate to simplify my teaching philosophy to this level. But I think it is important for students to take responsibility of their actions (or in-actions).

Scenario #2: For the first test I do an in-class study session for all my classes. The requirement to attend the review session is that you come to class with a ¾ of the way completed review. I told them that the purpose of the review day is for them to get answers to the ¼ they had not completed and to ask me any question about the test. I emailed and told students that they would be sent home and not allowed to participate in the review if they did not bring a review. It also counted as a 10 point quiz grade. The purpose of review day is to teach them that they must start studying before the night before the test. This is also a great opportunity to build up their confidence before the test.

I had about 10% from each class that didn’t do the review. Those students showed up thinking I would not send them home. It was a sad day for that 10%. Just about every one of them left my class shocked and amazed.  Did I want to send them away? No. I can only lead a student to a review day, I can’t make them fill out their review… So, 90% of all of my students got the benefit of review. In retrospect, that’s not a bad percentage.

Moral of the story:

Students may not always like you, but in the end they will understand and appreciate you for having high standards. I know why I have high teaching standards, and I know it will benefit students in the long run. I also know that it is not always pleasant to be the one enforcing high standards. I would not be the person I am today if it was not for all the teachers that set high standards for me.

Reflective Prayer

Dear God,

Guide me in the best teaching practices. I am thankful you have put me in this profession. I pray that I will honor you with every interaction. Help me to be sensitive to student needs while also maintaining high standards. Be with me and my students as we are on this journey together. Help me to learn the lessons you would have me learn so that I can be the teacher you desire me to be.


Life Lessons… what I wish I could tell my students

If I could write a letter to my students, this is what it would say.

Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc

1. God is preparing you… so be a good steward of your education.

Learning is a responsibility… not just a grade. God gives us opportunities to learn, and we should do this to the best of our ability. Once you get out of college, you pay your bills based on the money you bring in not the grade you get from a teacher. Treat your studies like a job. Practice now, because you will learn soon enough that your job won’t fail you or give you a ‘zero’ for not doing your work. They will fire you.

Test, quizzes, writing assignments, and projects are designed to track your learning progress. Use these experiences to guide you throughout your educational experience. It is your responsibility to learn. Communicate with your teachers when you are having difficulty learning. We are here to help.

2. Attitude is everything
I would rather work with someone that is less talented with a great attitude, than with someone that is super talented with a poor attitude. Work on your attitude. Learn from your bad attitude days and find ways to change your attitude.

Photo Credit: anitakhart via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: anitakhart via Compfight cc

3. Life is not easy.. don’t make excuses & stop whining
If life was easy… everyone would be good at it… only the successful rise to the top. Successful people have the same life issues as unsuccessful people. However, successful people learn how to overcome their difficulties. They strive longer and harder for success.

Think about your grandparents. What have they overcome for you and your family to have the opportunities that you have today? If you slack up today, how are you affecting your own future, and the future generations? Work hard. Don’t make excuses. Get the job done. You will see the fruits of your labor (good or bad).

4. No one ever truly knows their own potential… so don’t sell you self-short.

Dream big. I am only the person I am today because people saw potential in me. They encouraged me. However, I have had my fair share of non-supporters in my life. They didn’t believe in me, and at times I thought I wasn’t going to amount to much. I found out the hard way… no one truly knows your full potential.

Start with small successes. Let each success prepare you for your next opportunity. Seek out challenges and you will get stronger. You will grow from each experience.

Find other people that are successful in your chosen profession. Get to know their life story. Connect with these people early in life, and you will find that many people work hard to get to the top.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

5. Rules are generally safe boundaries… Embrace them.

Don’t touch the hot stove. Literally… don’t touch it. We can easily see why this rule is valid and important. The rules of life are not always that clear in why we should or should not follow them. For example, I have a no cell phone policy in my class. The reason I don’t allow cell phones is because you generally should not be playing with your cell phone in a professional setting. If you play with it during a meeting, you could be perceived as unprofessional or disrespectful. So why practice this bad behavior in college? I could go on and on with examples. The point is… when you encounter a rule about life, relationships, finances, ect. .. Just know that this is God’s way of protecting you. Embrace them.

This letter is not specifically for my students. It is more of a reflection of my own experiences and the lessons I have learned the hard way. I know my students may not understand this even if I told them… but I wish I would have learned these lessons the easy way.

Learning and teaching from an Expectancy Value Theory Viewpoint

The Expectancy Value Theory states that people’s behavior is directly related to their perception or belief in a given objective, and the value they attach to achieving said objective. Basically, people guesstimate the amount/type of work needed to achieve an outcome, and that they have preconceived ideas of how they will feel or what they will accomplish with the effort they provided.

Although this is a Consumer Behavior/ Marketing theory, I will attempt to describe my understanding of learning and teaching from this perspective.

Learners Assumptions: College students are paying customers. Students pay the university for the opportunity to expand their education, and for the opportunity to earn a college diploma. The university has developed curriculum to guide the student through the journey of intellectual maturity as they approach graduation. However, generally speaking, no refund or rebate is given if these objectives are not met. The consumer (college student) may discontinue college all together if the product (college) does not meet their expectations or may take their business elsewhere (go to another college).

It is safe for us to assume that college students have expectations of college. Based on these expectations, students exert the perceived effort to achieve those expectations.

So this got me thinking…..Is this the real difference between a student that reads before coming to class, and those that don’t? Is this the difference between students that come to my office to ask clarification about a test question or ask me to read their rough draft prior to the due date?

IF WE HELP CHANGE student’s perception of how they can be successful in my class or college, can I create an environment that allows them to have greater achievements? (change expectations = change behavior = change outcomes)

Teaching Assumptions: Teachers provide an instructional service that facilitates the educational experience.  Just like the service industry or any company you prefer over another…some are better than others (even if they deliver the same results).  As teachers get to know their student’s learning styles, they adapt their teaching materials and instructional delivery method to serve the students better. In an ideal world, teachers will know exactly how to successfully facilitate learning, and it could be done is a systematic way. However, this is not that simple.

In “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” , Stephen Brookfield highlights that teachers do not always know what helps or hurts the learning process in their classrooms. He also suggest that Teachers must simply ask questions about the learning process in order to understand what is REALLY going on from the students perspective. For example, Brookfield explains that group activities do not always facilitate learning. Sometimes students are embarrassed to talk amongst their peers, or one peer dominates the conversation. So, just because group activities and discussion are generally good, they may not always facilitate learning.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be using a “critical incident questionnaire” to evaluate how teaching and learning is interacting in my classrooms. I hope to discover what I am doing that helps students learn, and what I am doing that prevents them from engaging like they want to. The end goal is to improve desired behavioral outcomes towards learning, and increase the total value assumption of my class.

Conclusion: Learning and teaching is an interactive process. I believe students think they know what they need to do to be successful in my class. Some demonstrate that well, and it takes very little effort on my part to get them to actively participate in the learning process. I self-identify with this type of learner, and I understand that it is easier for me to teach 20-30 students that are always prepared and contribute to class. However, I see few students that fit into this ideal learner category.

I am confused when I find students unprepared for in-class discussion, a quiz, or are simply playing on their phone during my class. I ask myself… Do they do these things because they think this behavior will make them successful? Did I not tell them my expectations ahead of time? Do they not see value in my class? Do they not feel like they can be successful? Do they know what being a good student means?

These are hard questions to ask… And an even harder question is … Can I change their perceived belief or value that they have of my class? Should I take this responsibility or is this the responsibility of the learner? How do I create an environment that increases the student’s perceived value of my class?

AND.. if I do find a way to increase the learning experience this semester…. Will it work if I do it again next semester?

My Journey as a Professor

I did not set out to be a professor. I actually never considered the thought of being a professor… ever. I wanted to be a lawyer or a counselor because I thought that those professions actually helped people. However, as soon as my first semester in college, I realized that professors can change lives (for better or worse). A few professors influenced me in such a way that I wanted to be that person for other students.

I remember my first semester of teaching at the college level. I was in my first semester of graduate school and working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of North Texas. I was only teaching swimming, but it was the first time I got to see student success (and failure). I realized that I could help people achieve their dreams of learning how to swim. Although this was a small glimpse into the future… I found that I enjoyed helping people achieve their goal.

Looking back, those times were so much easier… and many times I wish being a professor was as easy as teaching someone to swim. Currently, I teach students how to be successful in their given profession and ultimately their life. If they are successful in their chosen profession, they can get a job that will not only allow them to build a comfortable life, but allow them to influence others in positive way (the worst part of this statement is that the opposite is also true…). So when I walk into the classroom, I seek to impact future generations through the process of learning in the classroom daily.

This is not an easy task or burden to carry. I am not successful every day with every interaction, but I strive to be. I am thankful for the professors that saw potential in me, and gave me the extra help when needed. Being a professor is not about being the easiest, the hardest, the meanest, or the nicest. It’s about expanding knowledge, building confidence, and increasing ability in students.

When I look to my mentors, I see qualities in each person I want adopt. My mentors are not perfect. Their journeys (highs and lows) have shaped each of them into who they are today. As I know I am not perfect, I pray that God will continue to teach me and mold me into the professor he desires me to be.

Lighting the Torch …

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.” Ben Sweetland

I plan to use this blog to help me think critically about what goes on in my classroom. I will be evaluating how my behavior influences students, and searching for better ways to interact and teach my students.  I am curious to what I will discover. I acknowledge that I don’t necessarily do things wrong ( or RIGHT), but I am willing to evaluate what could be better.

I hope to gain confidence and reassurance in many ways, but I also hope this challenges me to try new teaching methods. Below I will explain my assumptions as a professor going into a new semester. I am excited to see if these they will change or stay the same over the next year of reflection.  

Assumptions pre-reflection:

Student expectations/assumptions: I believe students should have a natural curiosity and desire to learn. They should read their textbook to get the basic information, & interact in class to develop a deeper understanding. Students should think critically about topics and learn how to apply the information to their future profession. Students should look at academic struggle as a way to grow personally and professionally.

Professor expectations/assumptions: The professor should facilitate discussion to enhance the material they learn on their own. The professor should come prepared with current and accurate knowledge. They should lecture on topic, provide time for questions, and link the material to a future profession. Professors should also develop test and quizzes in such a way that students know they must study the material on a deeper surface than memorization.

I look forward to see where this journey takes me!

– Dr. McRee