Teaching Tip: High Expectations

Whether you think you can or think you can’t— you are right. (Henry Ford)

I think I can, I think I can… (The Little Engine that Could)

Last week I summarized some of Arum & Roksa’s findings about learning on college campuses from their book  Academically Adrift.   In addition to the importance of significant reading and writing assignments, Arum & Roksa (2011) found that students who reported high faculty expectations of them showed significantly more improvement on a written essay test of critical thinking, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) than students who did not perceive high faculty expectations.   This is amorphous, to say the least.  How do you show high expectations of your students? Here are a few thoughts – certainly not exhaustive!

Believe in your students. Do you really believe that all students can learn and perform at a high level?  The “soft bigotry of low expectations” is unfortunately, all too real.  There is quite a bit of research at a variety of educational levels showing that faculty AND student beliefs about student ability can strongly influence student achievement.  When faculty and students hold “entity” beliefs about intelligence (students either have it or they don’t), students are less successful than when faculty and students believe that intellectual skills can be learned.  Students may choose not to do the hard work, it may take them longer or they may need additional support, but that does not mean they can’t do it.  I know I sound like Pollyanna, but holding this belief is important if we want to reach the students who need us the most.  Any professor can teach good students; it takes a great professor to reach the unprepared, those who don’t think they can learn and those who need more time and attention.

Show that you care. Students need to feel safe enough to take risks and try.  A complaint they sometimes voice implies that we are hard just because we enjoy torturing them.  Explaining to students why you hold high standards, that you sympathize with their struggles (even while continuing to hold high standards) and that you are determined to help them achieve can defuse (but not eliminate) student negativity about hard work.  Hard but caring professors tend to be remembered fondly, and students work harder for faculty they respect (and who respect them).

Ask for higher level thinking and analysis.   Often course syllabi indicate goals that are cognitively sophisticated such as analysis, comparison and creation.  Yet if course assessments are primarily fact-based such as many multiple-choice items, true/false and short answers, then we are sending a message about what really matters that students cannot fail to receive.

Help students set their own, challenging goals. If asked, most students will say they want to earn an “A” in your class.  But try encouraging them to describe in more detail what they would like to be able to do at the end of the course that they cannot do now.  Then you can check in with them during the semester to see if they feel they are making progress (or to commend them on their progress).  The goals could be related to understanding reading, writing or organizing more clearly, increasing their study time, or relating what they are learning to another class or to their lives.  Consider creating an agreement or contract with each student for one individual, high level goal.  Having students reflect on their progress from the beginning to the end of the semester can help them see that they are capable of learning difficult material.

Make your expectations clear. Every instructor has his or her expectations on everything from classroom deportment to the importance of margins.  Students can’t read our minds, so we need to describe our expectations for excellent performance very explicitly. Does spelling count?  Is a draft required?  Sometimes we get sick of all those petty questions but I think they often occur because students want to do well and are anxious or unclear about how to do so.  If you’ve spelled everything out and you still get the questions, you can gently ask the student to check the assignment guide and see if they can answer their own question.

Require students to read and write a lot. See last week’s blog post!  Provide ways to support those who need it, but continue to provide a college-level challenge.

Publicly reward excellent performance. Read the most creative application of a theory to a real life example out loud.  Put up sections of exceptionally good papers so other students can see them.  Praise particularly elegant answers to questions.  Sometimes you have to shape behaviors slowly to get the results you want, but rewarding desired behaviors is the cornerstone of behavioral psychology for a reason.  It works.

High expectations begin at home. Your home, that is.  Is there a segment of your course that is less effective?  A concept that you know from past experience is really difficult?  Have you been working on developing new learning activities?  Share your goals with your students so that they can see that lifelong improvement is important to you, and that you have high goals for yourself as an instructor.  And ask for their feedback when it’s appropriate. 

Don’t give up! Sometimes maintaining high standards seems like a never ending task. No one likes feeling pecked to death by questions and complaints from students who don’t do the reading and don’t turn in work in the right format.  It’s so tempting when you’re tired to just let it go.  Over the years, standards inch downward in small increments until, almost imperceptibly, they are no longer high and clear.  To keep this from happening, using rubrics when you grade can help remind you of what mastery really looks like.  In addition, talk to your peers.  Share syllabi and assignments and look within your discipline to see what others are expecting and how it aligns with your course.  Be particularly careful with extra credit and grading for participation, attendance and effort.  While these things are important, too much emphasis on them (at the expense of high level products) leads to grade inflation.

We have to stick together to keep our expectations raised even in the face of challenges from our students and from the larger society.  I have high expectations for us:  it’s very hard work, but we can do it.     How do you maintain your standards?

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