In the first article we looked at the first five of ten lessons learned from fifteen students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote a response to published essays in the New York Times and Slate, which focused on approaches to lecturing. Now we look at the last five.
6. Teachers and Administration Must Be Accountable
Students: “We expect to be held accountable, but we would hold our professors accountable as well.”
2015 was a tough year for the University of Missouri. With escalating racial tension, student protests began, culminating in a strike by the entire football team. By that time, the call was for the president’s resignation, as it was perceived by many that he hadn’t done enough to address the racial divide. By that time, even the president seemed to see no other feasible resolution. On November 9th, he resigned, highlighting a major failure at multiple levels in the university’s administration and student body.
Accountability is so much about communication. Too often in schools there is created an “us versus them” mentality, with both sides forgetting that they need each other. This can happen in any relationship—communication is always a vital piece of a successful relationship. Genuine communication requires transparency, vulnerability, and accountability, and no relationship can function long without these elements. Professors who regularly “take the pulse” of their students and then act upon their findings have a much better chance of being successful in the teaching process. Students of professors who show that kind of humility and responsiveness are more likely to be successful in achieving their educational goals.
“Pay close attention to yourself, and to your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16).
7. Value Students’ Presence in the Classroom
Students: “When we feel as though we won’t be missed if we skip class, it makes it easy to do just that.”
Toyota of El Cajon will send an email and a letter to remind you if you have forgotten to pay their service department a visit. They will call after a service visit to ensure everything went well. They will then email coupons and snail mail promos for your next visit. This kind of constant contact is common in the car sales and service industries, because these businesses understand how vital it is for them to get their customer to come to the dealership. It is estimated that roughly 20% of car dealership walk-ins actually buy a car from that dealership, so it is in the best interest of dealerships to get their customers and potential customers comfortable with being on their premises (through the service department, for example). But there is another interesting statistic: potential customers who have had prior contact with the dealership through email (especially) before visiting the dealership are nearly twice as likely to purchase their vehicle at that dealership. Dealerships recognize this, and try to keep a constant flow of communication—again, so that their customers and potential customers can get comfortable with them.
Many service industries have successfully leveraged electronic communications to maximize relationships with their clients, but higher-ed institutions are still debating the benefits of texting students and haven’t made the necessary adjustments. Schools that are the most deliberate about and the most diligent in staying in contact with students typically enjoy better student retention.
Timing is important in these communications as well. K-12 statistics show that students who miss 2-4 days of school in the first month of school will miss at least a month of school throughout the year. Communicating with students early and often provides a pipeline of information that can help students understand how much they are valued, and can help educators understand how to express that value and how to meet the specific challenges the students face in attending class.
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to give it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you” (Proverbs 3:28-29).
8. Don’t Throw the Baby (Lecture) Out With the Bathwater
Students: “We don’t all agree that the lecture is doomed. A number of us have found professors who have really inspired us with their lectures.”
“Inspiration and innovation for every athlete.” That is the tagline for Nike’s website. Once recognized primarily for being a shoe company, Nike has evolved far beyond shoes. Apps and wearable devices now complement Nike’s still impressive shoe repertoire. When questioned as to why Nike would move so far from its initial product focus, CEO Mark Parker observed, that “Business models are not meant to be static…. In the world we live in today, you have to adapt and change. One of my fears is being this big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that’s happy with its success. That will wind up being your death in the end.”
While Nike has transitioned successfully from simply shoes to inspiration and innovation for every athlete, they haven’t abandoned their core. They have stayed on mission, but recognized that growth and adjustment was needed in order to fulfill that mission. Nike’s lead engineer, Aaron Weast warns, “You can’t have a barrier or restriction to that core competency. If we constrain ourselves by a circle of competency, we’ll do ourselves a disservice. You need a willingness to punch through it.” Nike’s leaders recognize that mission fulfillment must be met with an “innovate or die” attitude, and that if success is to be continued, it must be achieved through reinvention and improvement—sometimes at the expense of the circle of competency, but never at the expense of the competency itself.
Unfortunately, the culture of higher-ed is often associated more with a circle of competency (i.e., methods in which the competency is delivered) than with the competency itself—which should involve the training and development of people. Companies like Nike help to underscore that it is possible—and beneficial—to reevaluate methods of preparation and vehicles of delivery in order to become better at the main thing.
In higher-ed there are few vehicles so hotly debated as the lecture itself. While there are many ways lectures can be improved, students acknowledge that professors can still actually inspire with their lectures. Such acknowledgments remind that the core product of any school is not the information it is passing along, but the people who are doing the training and developing. If this is true, then the best way to improve the lecture is to improve the person giving the lecture. Investing in people will better equip them to invest in others.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48).
9. Listen and Learn
Students: “Instead of debating the lecture, instead of imagining what students are thinking, get to know us…
In 2011, Netflix announced a substantial price increase and that it was splitting its DVD and streaming services. As a Netflix customer, I was frustrated by the strategy and I planned to leave Netflix in favor of another provider. The integrated service was very appealing, and had given Netflix an advantage over other providers. Needless to say I was surprised at the move to abandon that model, and saw it as a money grab. Many shared my sentiments, as the move was aggressively panned. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings listened. After receiving strong negative response to a substantial price increase, Hastings explained the strategy and apologized to Netflix customers, but that didn’t assuage customers’ angst, and Netflix saw substantial customer attrition and stock depreciation. Again, Hastings listened, and again, he apologized. This time, with humility and accurate assessment: “There is a difference between moving quickly—which Netflix has done well for years—and moving too fast, which is what we did in this case.” During Hastings’ tenure he has made some aggressive mistakes, but he has also exhibited some commendable humility—even going so far as asking the board to fire him—twice. Hastings and Netflix are good examples of the positive effect listening to the customer can have. During the Qwikster mistake, Netflix’s stock was less than $10 per share. Nearly five years later, the stock sells for well over ten times that amount.
As the fifteen students have warned, educators must get to know their students in order to understand students’ needs. Netflix got a crash course on what their customers wanted, and had to pay heavy tuition for the information. Netflix was fortunate to be able to recover and flourish. In today’s higher-ed climate, if an institution fails to understand the students’ needs, it is unlikely that institution will get a second chance.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15).
10. Anticipate the Generation Gap
Students: “Find out what college is like for us now, rather than what it was like for you years ago.”
In early 1994 a motley group of sports aficionados and broadcaster types started a sports talk radio station in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. That genre had never been attempted on that scale in radio before, but The Ticket (1310AM KTCK) developed instant traction. When I first tuned in, during the mid-90’s heyday of the Dallas Cowboys, I was attracted to the previously unheard of (by me) in-depth analysis of football and of the Cowboys specifically. Sure there were some funny bits along the way, but the early audience responded especially well to the sports-geek approach of the station. Somewhere along the line, the leadership and personalities of the station realized that appealing to sports geeks would only take the station so far. In order to grow they had to appeal to a much broader audience, and would need to develop P1’s from a larger swathe. More than twenty years later, listeners can still find some excellent in-depth analysis (e.g., Bob Sturm and Norm Hitzges set the standard, in my humble opinion), however, the station overall is much more geared toward social consciousness and pop culture, with an added strong dose of Howard Stern-like, 3rd grade potty-joke humor. While I don’t recommend that last ingredient, the evolution of the overall recipe has proven highly successful in attracting listeners, advertisers, ratings, and awards. The Ticket deserves credit for recognizing that they needed to appeal to a younger and broader audience, and they successfully executed a strategy to accomplish that. They acknowledged the generation gap, and understood the cost of not overcoming that gap.
While age and experience can be tremendously positive for obvious reasons, it is not uncommon to find amongst those more experienced educational leaders a decreasing ability to adjust to the culture and needs of younger generations. This is especially evident in understanding and applying emerging technologies for educational benefit. How many school administrators above the age of sixty are adept at social media, presentation media, streaming tools, and collaborative apps? Each generation of students develops within a culture impacted by technology, and their learning is greatly influenced by the tools with which they are familiar and comfortable. As a result, there will necessarily be generation gaps, and those educators who would be successful in reaching and impacting students will acknowledge those gaps, and anticipate ways to overcome them. Those educators who would be excellent will discern ways to overcome generational divides while staying true to mission and values.
“The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29).
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.