Student Coaching

Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students.  It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class.  At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job.  That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description.  Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance.  Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know?  I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.

Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young.  I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience.  Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work.  Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school.  It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was).  For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.

We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy.  Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate.  If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?

Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path.  They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities.  Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time).  Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them.  If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.

In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions.  Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments.  I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning.  And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them.  They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes.  The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn.  Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing.  Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.

And so, I sometimes coach students.  It’s pretty interesting so far.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Arts of Learning & Teaching

I’ve been in the apprenticeship phase of teaching for the last year, so I’ve largely been gaining experience in how information is conveyed and how to give feedback to students.  While I have given some consideration to course design and what kinds of courses I’d be interested in teaching, my primary focus has been on ensuring the students receive good content and (more importantly) good feedback on performance. Good performance management involves timely and specific feedback to either reinforce good behavioural outcomes, or quickly identifying and redirecting bad performance outcomes. It’s a challenge to ensure that feedback is both timely and useful, but it’s an important step of the process. 

I’m currently working my way through the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and I’ve started thinking about the process of learning.  While learning and teaching are separate domains, they are interconnected since they share similar goals.  However, being able to translate learning (whether being taught by a teacher or through self-teaching) into teaching to others is something that I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge about.

The first time I taught in-class in the college setting, I quickly became aware that my experiences with formal education (the university style lecture) was not a good mode of delivery to copy. While I am comfortable in the lecture setting, I saw that my students did not excel in that environment. I wish I could say that I had fixed my delivery before the end of the semester, but the reality is that I didn’t fully appreciate the situation until after the course was over and I reflected on the term. An environment where I stood at the front and spoke at length for two-hours was not one which the students could effectively absorb the material.

The problem I found is that how I think and absorb content is different from my students. Rather than teaching them to my style, I need to be more mindful of their talents and experiences. Waitzkin discusses this in his book, where he contrasts two kinds of teachers he’s had. One is the kind that teaches his own strengths and relies on rote memorization of strategies and techniques. In chess, this teacher has you studying opening moves to take early advantage of the board.  The other kind of teacher allows the student to play to their inner style, and teaches by building up concepts atomistically. In chess, this kind of teacher strip the board of all the pieces and focuses on the relationships between pieces at the end of the game. By showing how individual pieces play off each other, the student becomes comfortable across the game and learns not only how pieces fit together, but how to set yourself up for control at the end of the game.

I think my teaching style should embrace this second kind of teacher. Instead of dictating knowledge, I should focus on breaking the knowledge down and building up understanding in ways that make sense to the student. I can’t assume my students will have the prerequisite knowledge to compile the facts together on their own. It’s also the case that if I can’t break ideas down simply, the students might not get it, nor may I truly know what I’m talking about.  Afterall, Einstein and Feynman believed that if you couldn’t explain something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well yourself.

Stay awesome, 

Ryan

Skills Worth Developing – Storytelling

A common skill I often hear referenced as either lacking in new grads or in online career development literature is communication.  In the various industry meetings I sit in on, employers observe that soft skills, and communication in particular, is something that needs to be fostered in students.  One problem I have with the idea that we should develop better communication skills is that, on its own, the idea is hard to action.  What does it mean to communicate better?

At its core, communication is the process of taking an idea from one mind and trying to reproduce it in the mind of another person.  When I was exposed to communication theory in undergrad, I was taught the basic mechanics of the transmission model.  The transmitter encodes and sends a message through some medium, and the receiver decodes the message and attempts to understand it.  If you take out considerations of how messages can be disrupted en route (think: playing the telephone game), a frequent problem I encounter with communication is poorly encoding/decoding a message.  When you are trying to send a message, explain an idea, persuade, evoke empathy, etc. in others, how you choose to structure you message becomes critical.  A tool you can use is storytelling.

I was first exposed to storytelling as a serious mode of communication in 2012 through my local Community Foundation.  They had a pilot project called the Centre for Community Knowledge, which helped train local nonprofits and charities to tell their stories better.  The thinking was that if you could effectively tell your story, you could more easily connect with volunteers, donors, and others to champion your cause.  There, the instructors provided workshops for organizations to draft compelling stories, film them, and present them on the Centre’s platform.

Storytelling is hard.  Selecting the right details and presenting them in the right sequence in order to maximize impact is challenging.  I still consider myself an amateur when it comes to the skill of storytelling.  But in the five years since I first learned about telling stories in the nonprofit world, I’ve learn 4 core truths about storytelling on why it’s a skillset worth developing.

 

1.) Effective storytelling is mindful of the audience.

You can’t tell an effective story if you don’t consider who your audience is.  Everything hinges on knowing who you are speaking to – their experiences, their knowledge, their interests and wants, their attitudes, etc.  How you craft a message will differ if you are speaking to children versus conservatives versus students.  Is your audience open to your message, or are they hostile?  Are you trying to convey information, persuade them to change their minds, or entertain them?  You can’t tell a good story if you don’t think through these considerations.

2.) It’s not about wowing or captivating; it’s about connection.

Sometimes, we get bogged down in thinking about storytelling or speeches from the entertainment point of view – how do I captivate my audience?  How do I grab their attention and hold it?  But effective storytelling is not about captivating your audience, but rather it’s about building a connection with them.  It’s about making an idea relatable, in terms your audience understands.  If you can make your audience connect with you as a person, or at least your story, then you are effectively communicating with them.

3.) Theory and data is hard to understand; that’s why stories and metaphors are so important.

If you take a cursory look at the most common scientific theories, you will find an interesting phenomenon: you’ll often see that the theory is communicated through some sort of analogy or metaphor.  That is largely because the concepts being described behind the observations are not immediately accessible to everyone.  People don’t understand what gravity is, or what light is, or what evolution is.  So, science communicates complex models through stories.  Selecting stories to fit data and theory is challenging because you don’t want to leave out important details, but if you can choose the right story to tell, you can open up whole new worlds of understanding for your audience.

 

4.) Stories are often told with a purpose in mind.

Does every story need a point?  No, not really.  We can tell stories simple to entertain one another.  But effective stories are often effective because they are communicating an important message to the audience; a lesson, a purpose, a greater understanding.  In earlier civilizations, we created myths to explain the world and transmit values through the generations.  To borrow a phrase from Simon Sinek, the nonprofits I mentioned above were seeking to communicate their Why to their audience – why they do what they do.  Good stories often tell more than an amusing account of events.  They impart lessons that edify the audience.

 

Storytelling is only one way to effectively communicate.  I don’t mean to say it’s the only form you should use (I doubt the engineers I work with want my reports to them to be parables about data), but it’s worth developing as a skill if you want to be able to connect with others to share your ideas and vision.  Whether you are seeking to entertain your friends, break down a complex idea, or persuade someone to follow you, being able to tell a good story will go a long way in bridging the gap between you and others.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Admin, Prof, and Student? 

In line with my desire to take positive steps for my career, I’ve been exploring options on how to get more experience. One option available to me is to take classes at work. A great benefit of working for a college is that you can have amazing discounts on classes. At my college, support staff can take classes for a flat rate of $20.  How could you not take advantage of that?

When I started this blog, I was taking a biology course to prepare for my entry into paramedicine. Having since abandoned that career path, I haven’t seen the need to enroll in classes. However, when I missed out on some recent career moves, I thought the time has come to see what courses I could take.

Looking through the course offerings, I stumbled across some management courses. One stood out to me:

MGMT1960 – Performance Management
This subject will focus on performance analysis, counselling, constructive feedback, conflict resolution, performance management systems and overall strategies for performance management.

Given my recent job shift towards student advising, it seemed like a good option to pursue. My boss signed-off on it, and now I’m course-loaded for a management class starting on Tuesday. The course is thankfully offered online, so it’ll give me some latitude to fit it into my schedule.

This also means that I am straddling three different areas at the college. I’m continuing my main duties as a administrative support staff, and I’m slated to teach another round of Quest for Wisdom online, and now I’ll also be a student. If nothing, I seem to like things interesting and keeping busy. Let’s see how this goes.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan