Monday, December 10, 2018

Maintaining High Expectations

Norman Vincent Peale said “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  I try to follow that philosophy, which many times leads to unrealistic expectations.  However, my thought is if I get close, then I did a great job.  Many times, I am correct.  Unfortunately, that philosophy crept into my classes in a way that may have decreased expectations instead of helping students thrive.

The top complaint on my teaching evaluations is I assign too much work.  My classes are usually either 1 or 2 credit hours, but students say the classes assign 3 to 4 credit-hours worth of work.  My homework is more difficult because students must actively do something (ie – rewrite answers) as opposed to passive reading.  The complaint isn’t far off though.  I tend to assign a ton of work with the thought that getting close will produce improvement.  However, my setup may not be working as intended.

I experienced a few unintended consequences from my assignments.  The first problem is the effort applied to homework.  Many of us complain about students only wanting to do the minimum to get through.  I experience the same phenomenon, and my classes probably exacerbate the problem.  The work load is high.  Students want to get through it as fast as possible or need to get through it fast because they waited to the last minute.  The quality isn’t maximizing student potential because they are trying to get more done.  Too many times, the re-written essay answers are only slightly better than the original.  The classes may unintentionally communicate quantity over quality work. 

Late work is the next issue.  I believe doing the exercises is what improves skills.  I don’t want to let someone off the hook from doing the work.  They should still complete the assignment for its inherent value.  You all know where this is headed.  Unfortunately, the class culture becomes doing the work on their timetable and not the deadlines, which is a terrible habit for bar prep.  Students are receiving the message everything can be crammed in at the last minute, which is a recipe for disaster.

Lastly, I may be setting students up to continue to not do enough work.  The example I set is not getting everything complete can still lead to success.  I believe that is true when “shoot(ing) for the moon.”  Students may not understand my expectations are set extremely high.  All they see is missing the expectations and being ok.  When they set their own goals or expectations, they may not set them high, but they learned missing the mark is still ok.  Whether this is the exact phenomenon in bar prep is debatable, but I have students every summer complete significantly less than assigned.  If they completed less in my class and passed, I may have taught them completing less in bar prep can still lead to success.  We all know less work in bar prep can be catastrophic.

Change for me starts next semester.  My classes will contain significant work because I believe the bar exam requires hard work.  However, I plan to create explicit scoring expectations so students can’t submit a quiz at the last minute by guessing through the questions.  The online system I use allows me to return the quiz to students if they don’t meet a minimum score.  I will require significant completion of the work with no late acceptance.  I know everyone has an off day, so I won’t require perfect completion for credit.  My syllabus will clearly communicate students can’t drift too far from completing everything.  Lastly, I will communicate all of that information to the students.  Communicating expectations early is critical to coaching them up to a higher standard.

I believe the vast majority of us have students’ best interest at heart.  In my effort to try to get students to reach higher and do more work, I may be sending contradictory messages.  I hope to change that message next semester.  I am sure I will make some mistakes while doing it.  Like I tell my students, the process of improvement is what matters.  Hopefully, I can continue through the process.

(Steven Foster)

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