Recently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, fifteen students in a writing course taught by Professor Catherine Prendergast wrote a response to published essays in the New York Times and Slate, which focused on approaches to lecturing.
The response of these students is enlightening especially for those who would be effective teachers and communicators. I observe (at least) 10 lessons from their brief letter that are helpful not just for those who are delivering education in the classroom, but also for those in leadership and administration.
“[I]t is not good for a person to be without knowledge, and he who hurries his footsteps errs ” (Proverbs 19:2).
1. Minimize the Impersonal for Students
Students: “For three or four hours of our day, we sit in cavernous rooms – with up to 800 strangers – where the professor doesn’t know our name, let alone ask us to speak.”
The larger the classroom setting, the more difficult it is to keep things personal for students, so the larger the class, the more effort is required to ensure that students feel a part of the class.
American Airlines’ flight attendants address their first class passengers by name when offering them food, beverages, or other amenities. When one considers the amenities they receive in first class compared to economy, the difference is not necessarily worth the dollars involved in the upgrade. Yet, the airline takes some simple steps to ensure that their customers are made to feel a bit more special. Now, this is not so difficult when dealing with twenty-four passengers who have assigned seats – it is certainly much more difficult in a classroom of fifty or a hundred to acknowledge students by name. But just remember, your students are paying for a first-class education. What personalized amenities are they receiving for their price of admission?
“The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of understanding” (Proverbs 10:21).
2. Minimize the Impersonal for Faculty
Students: “Professors who…humanize themselves – make us feel less like just a body in the room.”
The teaching process is not simply the depositing of information and ideas into the students. In order for something to be taught, that something must be learned. Certainly, students have a significant responsibility in the process, but they get some credit for having made a tremendous investment just to be in the classroom. How can the faculty demonstrate that they truly care about students, and that they are not simply there to complete a job or earn a paycheck?
Not too long ago, The Home Depot went through a golden age of company growth, largely achieved by the development of its people. A key management philosophy of The Home Depot was to empower its budding managers to run multi-million dollar departments. The retailer maintained a culture of investing time and energy in training young people who were hungry to learn, and then rewarded those learners with opportunities to create entrepreneurial careers. Not every manager was willing to mentor his or her people, but most were – enough were committed to that process to impact the entire company in a positive way. They did it one person at a time.
Are higher-ed institutions investing in their people? Ensuring that the faculty and staff feel like they are valued and have a path for the future? When that is taking place, it is much easier for those people to care and invest in students. Culture reflects leadership, and leadership sets the culture. If higher-ed leaders don’t care about their people, those institutions will have staff and faculty that don’t care about students.
“Give instruction to a wise man and he will be wiser still, teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning” (Proverbs 9:9).
3. Make the Most of Students’ Time
Students: “We’re trying to hold down a job to pay for college, and our time is at a premium.”
Chic-fil-a is an incredibly popular restaurant wherever they operate. It is not uncommon to see their parking lots full and drive-through lines long. It is truly amazing to see how long some people will wait in the drive-through lines to order their food. But it is not uncommon, when lines get long, to see Chic-fil-a employees outside walking through those lines, and taking orders by hand. This is a huge positive for the restaurant. It shows that they recognize there are a lot of people who need to be served. They are logistically prepared to serve each person and that is evident. Customers see that. They are willing to wait awhile as long as they know that they are doing business with someone who values their time. Chic-fil-a has developed a culture of valuing its customers’ time. That is one of several reasons that the restaurant has a high degree of customer loyalty.
The higher-ed institution needs to look for specific ways within its own culture to maximize efficiency in using the students’ time. Further, schools need to accentuate those efficiencies, making them visible and tangible to students. The flipped classroom, blended and hybrid models are all ways to value students’ time in the classroom. Even something as simple as a well-crafted syllabus can demonstrate to the student that their time is valued and appreciated.
“So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
4. Understand the Importance of Momentum
Students: “[We get] discouraged as our fellow students disappear over the course of a semester.”
After a very sluggish first half of football in Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints were losing to the Indianapolis Colts. Saints’ coach Sean Payton recognized the importance of momentum and made a gutsy, risky call for an onside kick to open the second half. The Saints recovered the kick, grabbed hold of the momentum and never relinquished it on their way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. Had Payton’s decision backfired, it would have been ridiculed as one of the dumbest moves in Super Bowl history. But he showed the courage to make the move to grab hold of the momentum, and that courage paid off in the biggest of ways.
If attrition rates are high and retention rates are low, the school needs to quantify the causes and resolve them quickly. Even after the root causes are fixed, sometimes drastic measures are called for in order to reverse the negative momentum. Schools that don’t recognize the importance of momentum will quickly find out the hard way that momentum matters.
“Fathers do not exasperate your children, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
5. The Lecture Must Add Value
Students: “If the lecture is just a monotone recitation of the Power Point presentation, or a regurgitation of the textbook, we feel we’re not losing anything by not coming to class.”
The in-flight safety demonstration is usually very uninteresting, even if it is helpful and actually quite important. Airlines have to present the information to their customers, and typically flight attendants communicate the safety features and procedures in a sleepy manner. Yet, in August of 2015, a WestJet flight attendant presented an in-flight safety demonstration that was so effective, it received applause from passengers, and a video of his demonstration has since had over nine million views on Facebook and more than seventy thousand likes.
How did one man take the mundane and give it value? When was the last time anyone actually applauded the presentation of the safety features and procedures on a plane? In this case the flight attendant used humor. But he first demonstrated that this part of his job was important and worth doing thoughtfully and in consideration of the people he was serving.
The classroom lecture shouldn’t be mere repetition of other course components. Instead, it can be a laboratory for students where discovery, discussion and interaction is welcomed. There are a number of vehicles that can make the lecture more interesting and more useful, and the first step for a lecturer is to be thoughtful in considering how the lecture component is to be a true value for learners.
“A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word” (Proverbs 9:9).
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.