pearls of wisdom

Today Sunaina and I had the pleasure of lunching with Russ Day, Senior Lecturer and head of the Intro Psych program at SFU. Of the many insightful ideas he shared with us, a few stand out for me in particular. Most potently, he built on the idea of of 20-60-20: 20% of students will learn in spite of you, 20% may not be sufficiently motivated to learn from you at all, but that middle 60% is where our biggest impact can be as instructors. So if I pitch my course at the 80th percentile of students, the top 20% won’t be too bored, the bottom 20% will be disengaged, but I have the potential to truly engage and challenge 60% of my students. This is interesting on its own, but he pushed it further into what this would mean for student evaluations. The students in the, say, 21st-25th percentiles will be pushed too far if I’m pitching for the 80th percentile. A psychologically healthy response to failure is an external attribution: i.e., to blame me. So if I’m not getting about 2-3% of students feeling frustrated by my course, I may be pitching my course at too easy of a level. Wow!!! That is powerful! (I’m reminded here about something else we discussed: Chickering & Gamson’s 7 Principles, one of which is “communicate high expectations.”) So often I (and others) ruminate about those few extremely critical comments in the student evaluations, and have to find ways to cope with them… but Russ offered such a thoughtful and realistic perspective on those comments! Instead, I should be ruminating on the positive comments, trying to figure out exactly what I did to connect with that student so I can do more of it.

The second idea that really stands out for me was our discussion about being a scholar. As a scholar, there is no choice but to keep up with the literature. For me, that means content, but also as a teaching-focused scholar, the education literature. This is a challenge to me, one that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now. One thing I do to help with this is that I attend the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) reading group weekly during the summer months. This is one step in the right direction. Where can I build more literature into my life?

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