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?

Teaching Tip: Avoiding academic drift

In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report their findings on learning in college classrooms.  Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an essay-format critical thinking measure,  Arum & Roksa assessed the writing, critical thinking and problem solving skills of over 2,000 students from 24 institutions of varying size and selectivity.  Student scores on the CLA administered at the beginning of their first year were compared to their scores at the end of the second year.

Results from the study are sobering, but probably not surprising to anyone who has worked in higher education recently.  Approximately 45% of the sample made no progress in their skills in the first two years of college.   The authors consider many variables in their analysis of the data including ethnicity, prior preparation, gender, student attitudes and more.  While students don’t make as much progress as we would wish for many reasons, one of the encouraging findings of this study was that faculty choices made a difference.  Arum & Roksa reported two faculty-controlled variables associated with student improvement:  high faculty expectations and rigorous amounts of reading and writing.  All well and good you say, but what does that mean and how can we do it?  This week I’ll write a bit about reading and writing, while next week we’ll look at other ways of demonstrating high expectations.

In Arum & Roksa’s study, a course with rigorous amounts of reading and writing was defined as 40 pages per week of reading and 20 pages of writing over the course of a semester.  Students who reported taking courses that required both rigorous reading and writing showed more positive change.  Students who reported that their courses had only one or neither of those requirements did not show positive change.   Recall that these were freshman and sophomore level courses, not upper-level major courses.    And of course, this definition of rigor (as well as the CLA itself) tends to privilege humanities and social science courses that are naturally highly verbal.  So, rather than take these numbers as a standard to be met,  think about the kind of reading and writing that occurs in your discipline and then think about helping students learn to do it.  Reading a dense philosophy article or a detailed mathematical example would take easily as much time as reading 40 pages of a novel or a textbook.  And in studio courses, “reading” may not use words at all, but the concept of studying the works of professionals in the field to learn from them remains.

Reading: I believe that reading (both amount and skill levels) is one of the biggest problems we encounter with students at all levels.  Many students across  America don’t regularly do assigned course reading – one of Arum & Roksa’s findings was the low level of outside work students put into their courses overall.  But, in courses with higher levels of assigned reading and writing, students did put in more hours of study.  So, try to avoid the vicious circle i.e. students don’t read and so we assign less reading because they don’t read.  Also, realize that you will need to teach your students, especially at the lower level, how to read the material you give them.  Most do not come into college having encountered difficult reading.  One way to combine increased reading and writing is to ask students to keep a reading journal, produce a summary or a list of questions that show they have completed course readings.  These assignments also provide you with a check on whether students are reading, and the difficulty level of the assignment.  They could form the basis of a self-made study guide for future examinations or the basis for a longer writing piece, perhaps comparing two items.  Some professors use reading quizzes to check on reading compliance as well.  You may prefer the summary or journal approach since it takes more time to make up a reading quiz.  Another way to check on reading AND stimulate class discussion is to have a group reading quiz.  Students could take the quiz as a small group OR (my favorite) students take the quiz individually first and then re-take it in the group.  I like this approach because it combines individual and group accountability and stimulates students to talk about the reading material.  It also shows them that their peers really can be helpful sources of information.

Think beyond the text book, even in lower level courses.   Having to struggle with “real” disciplinary texts requires students to stretch their skills and develop them.  Just don’t assume that students can read such texts (or even some textbooks) without support.  Spending class time actually reading in small groups and then discussing the material can both model deep reading and get students started on a homework assignment to finish the article themselves.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to make sure that your reading assignments meet the “rigorous” standard:

  • Do you assign readings but then cover them in lecture?  I have a friend with many unread college texts because he could get everything he needed to do well in the course from lecture alone.  At least he bought the books; some our students don’t bother.
  • Is there any downside to not completing readings?  In the example above, there was never anything on exams that was only in the readings, and there was no other way of assessing whether he had read anything.   So why bother?
  • Can students get an A or a B in your class if they are not reading?  According to Arum & Roksa’s work, many students across the country apparently are having this experience.  If you really want students to do the readings, you need to structure your course so that students not only can’t get A’s or B’s but cannot pass the course without reading.

Writing: Writing is for all courses, not just WI!  One of my biggest concerns about the WI requirement is that students will not expect extensive writing in any course not labeled WI.  But if you think of writing as “thinking on paper” and assign multiple shorter summaries, annotated bibliographies, critiques or reflections, you will be pushing your students to interact with course concepts more deeply.

Extensive writing does not mean a long term paper, turned in at the end of the course.  While I believe that extended, long-form writing can be a useful format, it isn’t appropriate for every course.  You may choose to keep most of your writing assignments short and/or low stakes (e.g.  marked as done or not done).  Like reading, writing assignments will only be done if students see a positive reason to do them, and unfortunately the argument that they enhance learning tends to fall on deaf ears.  So, if you’re using low stakes assignments, you will need to figure out some way to include them in your grading scheme.  For example, a short essay or reflection can be used as an “entry to class” ticket, but you have to be willing to keep students who don’t have the “ticket” out of class.  You could require them to go off and complete the assignment or do something else before coming back to class, but understand that this approach requires a strong belief that coming to class without having done the assignment is pointless for the student and detracts from the class experience for everyone else.   If this approach does not work for you, consider counting the writing as all or part of a daily class participation grade – students can still attend class if they have not done the assignment, but won’t receive much or any credit.   Another way to use lower stakes writing is to have students create a portfolio of their low stakes work and then choose one or more low stakes pieces as the basis for a graded assignment.  Does this take more faculty time?  Yes of course it does but less than you might think.  And you get insights into your students’ thinking and understanding that it’s hard to get any other way.

Higher stakes written assignments should count for enough of the grade that students cannot get A’s without completing them in an acceptable manner.   If your class doesn’t ordinarily include a lot of writing, e.g. math, nursing or design, but you want to incorporate a rigorous amount of writing, you might consider contract grading (also known as the Chinese menu approach).  Students who successfully complete requirements in a variety of areas achieve a pre-determined grade.  For example, to get a grade of C, students would need to complete requirements 1, 2 and 3 while to get a B they would need to complete all of the C grade elements plus requirement  4, which could be a writing assignment or a certain number of reflections.  To achieve an A students would need to complete all of the C and B requirements plus additional work of your choice.  Devising a contract grading system has the added and interesting benefit of really forcing you to decide what is foundational to your course.  What elements should be required for a C but not for a B or an A?  What really constitutes higher level, rigorous work that earns an A?  It is also important that “completion” has clearly defined criteria – handing in all required work does not result in a passing grade if it is done poorly.

Of course, the other issue with incorporating more reading and writing into your courses is the culture in your school and department.  Can your department establish departmental standards that are rigorous so that students can’t pick and choose faculty based on their expectations, and so that no one is unfairly penalized with low student evaluations?  Talk to your peers and your chairperson about how your expectations fit with the aspirations of the school and the department.  One strong point made in the Arum & Roksa book was the need for higher education to step up and deal with this issue before we are subject to increased scrutiny and outside regulation.  But beyond that, we want our students to be strong thinkers and writers, and right now many of them are not.  We need to share what works and talk honestly about what is not working to achieve our goals.


Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011).   Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.