Monday, February 18, 2013

College Educators: Do We Focus on Teaching "The Right Stuff"?


Two years ago I accepted my first teaching position at an undergraduate school. I decided that I would first explore the major challenges of teaching in this environment today, and how to best deal with these challenges.

So, with several months to prepare, I reached out to clients who were active or retired professors and/or teachers, and spoke with soon-to-be colleagues, and even with my own daughters (both in college at the time). Of course, my daughters we surprised (when does a father ever seek their advice), but I actually found their comments extremely informative.

I learned that the major challenges were: (1) sleepy (and hence) inattentive students; (2) lack of adequate preparation for many students in terms of their high school education; (3) lack of motivation; and (4) lack of good communication skills, often exacerbated by shyness.

I quickly adopted a strategy. Tackle each of these challenges head-on, in the classroom environment.  How, you might ask?

First, by addressing the necessity of sleep. Academic studies show that the youth of today sleep a full two hours less per night than the youth a century ago. Dr. James Maas, author of The Power of Sleep (a must-read, for the information gained therein can even assist financial advisors in dealing with their clients), posits that the average college student requires 9 hours 15 minutes of sleep.  Other studies suggest slightly lower amounts, but still far more than the average college student gets today.

So how did I tackle this? Direct education, plain and simple. Showing a YouTube video of an excerpt from Dr. Maas' speech on the subject. As does putting the need for sleep in a catchy slogan: "9 hours, 15 minutes ... need I say more." Repeating this phrase often during the semester, at the beginning of class, then re-enforces the concept. Other opportunities come for repeating the phrase, such as when a student begins to dose off in class, or yawns. [For more, see my prior blog post on this particular subject, "College Students: More Sleep = More Sex" at]

Second, I knew that I needed to address the motivation of my students. How so? By focusing on success, the development of habits to foster success, and the realization that success requires work. Hence, at the commencement of each class I present one or more "Success Tips." A few minutes is often spent on these tips. These success tips are reinforced, as well. How? By using the reverse side of  quiz paper to lay out previously revealed success tips (any advertiser will tell you to "advertise" to a "captive audience" - such as when some students have finished the quiz and we await others to finish). By posting signs in the halls of my building, with success tips. By offering, at the appropriate time during a semester, extra credit to students for them to write an essay on which success tips were most impactful to them. Lastly, at the end of the semester, by taking a private survey of the success tips, to ascertain which ones were most impactful. (These last two measures have the added benefit of enabling me to discard success tips that did not relate to the students, and finding new ones that may.)

Another technique I use is to ask the "Five-Year Question" (a question I often used in financial planning practice), but modified to fit the students. For example, have students write a short essay outlining what their perfect job would be in five years, and also in 15 years. Have them also write, in the same essay, what they would likely be doing in five years if they do not acquire a college degree. This is all about establishing goals. Then I explore with students the concept of S.M.A.R.T. Goals, as the means of completing building blocks for the foundations of their 5-year and 15-year success.

Third, I knew that "Success Tips" and goals establishment and sleep, combined, were not enough to change student behaviors, especially for the freshmen and sophomores I teach in my Business Law classes. While students are given the opportunity to learn various skills to tackle study habit shortcomings, such as "time management" skills, I feel that too often such training "misses the boat." The real challenge for many students is to improve their "self-control muscle." In fact, as I've written elsewhere in this blog, the ability to exercise self-control is perhaps the major determinant in success in all aspects of one's life.  [For more on this concept, visit my recent blog post, "The Secret of Your Success: Self-Control," at]

Again, such instruction is re-emphasized throughout the course, and expanded by covering techniques to avoid procrastination (see the YouTube video, "Charlie on Procrastination," for example). The statement we repeat out loud in class all the time is "Just Do It. Do It, Do It, Do It. Do It Now." Students are encouraged to say this statement (or the short form of it, "Just Do It!" - out loud - whenever they possess an inability to get started on an assignment they need to tackle.

Fourth, to address some of the inferior study skills students possess, I instituted the practice of students writing hand-written outlines of each chapter. And I grade a sampling of these outlines. I also permit students to use these hand-written outlines during quizzes and exams. (My exams are structured to stress deductive reasoning skills for my lower-level undergraduate students, and synthesis of the material and application to client situations for my upper-level students.) The outlines are my way of ensuring that students spend time covering the material.

Fifth, I use techniques to "expand each student's comfort zone." For example, students must repeat, loudly, the phrase "Ooze Confidence" in class. [See my prior blog, at]. We watch, in class, a TedX video on the benefits of a 2-minute "Power Pose." I explore various concepts, such as "Rush Toward Your Fear," in class. [See my prior blog on this subject, at] I also provide instruction on "How to Meet Someone for the First Time."

Of course, just teaching students the principles behind good socialization skills is not enough. Practice is essential. Hence, one class each term my students confront "The Three Challenges of Alfred State." They must shout out a success tip (loudly) in front of the class (and passer-bus) at our bell tower on campus. They must introduce themselves to one of our Vice-Presidents, in the intimidating environment of the executive office suite on campus. And they must go up and introduce themselves to someone they do not know, and gather some information. Other exercises are used, outside of the classroom, and often through extra credit assignments, to get students to further push out their "comfort zones."

I also have instituted "Smile, Greet and Walk Tall" days in the halls of our building, on various days during the semester. This is a pilot program, at present. In a few months I will assess whether this very limited pilot program deserves to be conducted more widely (perhaps campus-wide).

While all of the foregoing is important, the sixth and final strategy utilized was to make class instruction as engaging as possible. For educators reading this, you are no doubt familiar with many of the strategies which can be utilized. For example, introducing short videos into the classroom. Guest speakers on various subjects. "Team Jeopardy" competitions in class. Peer-to-peer instruction to emphasize various important points. Class projects of a collaborative nature, undertaken in part during class under a watchful eye. Heavy use (where appropriate) of online resources which students access in class. And many others. I have not found that a single technique is "best" - rather, I find that a mixture of many instructional techniques works best.

Currently I expect my students to conduct the readings prior to class, so that we can focus our class time on applying the concepts.  But I've found that many students are challenged to sit and read for hours.  Hence, this summer I'll be preparing to more fully "flip" the classroom. I'll be moving to an online book for one or two of more courses, which is editable by me. I'll then add to the online book short 2-3 minute videos to explain various concepts. Other videos will review examples. In this manner, when preparing for class students will be constantly moving back and forth between a few paragraphs of reading and short videos. I'll also use MindMaps to lay out the concepts in class, and to demonstrate connections.

What is the reaction to the foregoing? Very positive, I would say, from the anonymous student surveys conducted of the students in each class at the end of each semester. Many students have added comments on how a particular success tip has changed their attitude toward their education, or how a technique has aided them. Others have thanked me for pushing them out of their "comfort zone."

This is not to say that there is not room for improvement. Indeed, one of the concept I try to instill in my students is the necessity for "continuous improvement."  For example, one of the expectations students possess of me (as discerned when I ask them on the first day of each class) is that I am "humorous." While I have a dry wit, and use humor several times during each class (by design, usually), I find that some students relate more to stories with humor embedded therein. Hence, I take time before each class to ask myself, "What can I do to add a bit more humor, or stories, to today's lesson plan?" Hopefully my future scoring on "humor" at the end of each semester, which has ranked a bit below my otherwise high marks for meeting other expectations of the students, will improve in future surveys.

I have heard from some of my fellow colleagues that we should not "coddle" our students in such ways.  Rather, they are "adults" and should be able to complete their lessons and achieve success without devoting time in class to such techniques to motivate and educate our students. In a way I feel this is a "cop-out." But in some sense, my colleagues may be right. There is a danger - that students will not learn to complete tasks "on their own."

But I don't accept the premise that our current crop of freshmen should not receive some instructional training and motivation to succeed. It seems to me more than appropriate to seek to improve the retention rates at our college, in order that an ever-higher percentage of our entering students are able to actually attain their degrees (and the higher levels of career and financial success that nearly always comes with same).

But the danger of "coddling" is there. Fortunately, students are exposed to a wide variety of teaching styles as they progress through our college. Hence, if I can teach students how to become better students - more motivated to succeed, with better self-control and socialization skills, and possessing of enough sleep, then I'm certain the students will get enough "practice" of these skills - without constant reminder from the professor - in other courses taught by other faculty. (This shows that having a mix of teaching styles is valuable, in every curriculum.)

I would also note that the skills employers desire most - critical thinking, the ability to work in teams, the ability to complete a task without need for supervision, and the ability to relate to colleagues and clients successfully - are the practical skills which some of my instruction in each class seeks to more directly address.

To me each class is an opportunity - to expand our students' minds. To foster their desire to learn. To foster their entrepreneurial spirt.

Each class I teach is also a responsibility. To use the limited time I am granted with each group of students to put them on the path, not just for mastery of the technical subject matter at hand, but to a more successful path in all aspects of their future lives.

Admittedly I, myself, have much to learn. But, for now, I share the foregoing perspectives, in hopes that other educators may find some value in same. And I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Professor Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP(r) teaches Business Law, Retirement Planning, Investment Planning, Employee Benefits Planning, Money & Banking, Insurance & Risk Management, and the Personal Financial Planning Capstone courses at Alfred State College, Alfred, NY. He is an EPLP Mentor, C.R.E.A.T.E. program mentor, serves as advisor to Alfred State's Business Professionals of America club, and serves as academic advisor to dozens of students.

Professor Rhoades is the author of "CHOOSE TO SUCCEED IN COLLEGE AND IN LIFE: Continuously Improve, Persevere, and Enjoy the Journey," a 10-week program for success in college (available for $2.99 in Kindle store at, or in paperback for $6.99). Professor Rhoades may be reached by e-mail at:

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