Milo and Dilbert

*Milo, a GCC F-1 visa student, stuck his head into my office in the international education program one day and said, “Can I see you for a second?” He closed the door behind him (an unusual act unless there is a highly serious issue to discuss) so I was expecting the worst. But instead, Milo asked, “What’s a Dilbert?” “A Dilbert?” I repeated. “Yes, a Dilbert. An American student over in the high-tech center just called me a Dilbert.” Unfortunately, it’s not entirely unusual for international students to consult me about matters of this nature (bullying, comments, teasing). Upon arrival in America, they must traverse a sometimes unfamiliar and hostile terrain. Of course, I knew of the cartoon character, and knew that to call someone a Dilbert was considered an insult. But how was I going to explain this one? Initially, I Googled pictures of Dilbert to show to Milo, and wouldn’t you know it? The very first image I clicked on downloaded a computer virus. I myself had just been Dilberted! Through Wikipedia, I ascertained that Dilbert is a “fictional character…who has a rare medical condition…utter social ineptitude.” But I also found out that Dilbert is a graduate from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering, and an employee with good ideas (though seldom pursued because “he is powerless”). Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams, penned, “Engineers are always honest in matters of technology and human relationships. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep engineers away from customers, romantic interests, and other people who can’t handle the truth.”** I learned that “Dilbert has a strong immune system and is therefore less likely to get sick than his co- workers. While in most respects weak and un-athletic, Dilbert is a skilled badminton player…Although he is an excellent worker, and does not stop trying, he acknowledges that this will get him nowhere.” Dilbert’s mother is an adept Scrabble player, and his father has been at a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat restaurant since 1986, where he intends to stay until he’s eaten all that he can eat. Ultimately, the international student and I discovered that Dilbert is an educated, employed and skilled man in excellent health who never stops trying. He has good ideas, and two parents (though, admittedly, one is absentee!). And though it turned out that being called a Dilbert was not the best thing in the world, it was also not the worst, and in the end, the cartoon character (sadly, Dilbert was eventually killed by a wild deer in 1990) acquired two brand new fans!

*Not the student’s real name

**The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions


Who is More Nervous on Test Day — The Teacher or The Students?

You’ve created amazing and interesting lectures, outlined clear objectives, assigned appropriate reading, used technology in creative ways, conducted review sessions – you may have even told the students what will be on the test. That should be enough to ensure they will succeed on test day, right?

Much to your dismay, scores were not what you had hoped. What went wrong? Do the students just not study, do they not care? What was missing?

After my first experience with this, I started looking into what could be done to identify the needs of the students better. This is where I began learning more about using informal assessment tools.

Informal assessment is a way of determining what students are learning and where they need more guidance by interacting with them without using a “test” or “quiz” to find that result.

I began by using the 321 Summary at the end of each class. It is a simple questionnaire:

  1. Write three things you learned today.
  2. Write two questions you have.
  3. Write one thing that was helpful today.

This tool provides feedback both ways – for students to assess how I did in helping them learn the material, and for me to answer any unresolved or confusing points. It also helped me learn what teaching style I should use for certain individuals to get the most from the lecture sessions.

Asking students to reflect on the class period and ask meaningful questions about it gave them the potential for better retention of the material. It also provides them with the opportunity to practice their critical thinking skills.

I generally use Canvas to respond to their questions before the next class. If there is a common theme in the questions, I know I need to spend more time on that in the next class.

As an Adjunct Faculty member, I do not have an office or office hours, and therefore, students really don’t have the opportunity to come and see me individually without making an appointment and finding a private place to meet. It’s been a great way for students to communicate important personal or other issues they have that would normally be covered during office hours.

I have found that by communicating with the students in this fashion, they become more comfortable with me and the class earlier in the semester, and I learn more about the students that can help forge a better experience for us all.

Oh, and by the way … The first semester I used this tool, average test scores went up by 8-14 percent. Students were surprised at how “easy” the test was. While the students didn’t realize they were being “assessed,” they were able to master and retain the material more effectively.



The Inverse Power of Praise

     I decided to share this concept with some of my students because I remember how powerfully it struck me.  Praising kids can have a negative effect on their intellectual performance and motivation as they grow older.  Why did this strike such a reaction in me?  As a teacher I thought of all the times I had simply said "good job" or something similar on a task as if the task were over, and there was no more learning to be gained.  I wondered if I had inadvertently fed into what my students already believed about themselves--that they were either smart or dumb, and that was it.  I started reflecting on what I thought about learning.  I started changing how I responded to my students, mostly honors classes at the time.  These were students who had most likely had been told they were really smart for most of their lives.  I started praising their efforts, the small victories they made, particularly in their writing instead of making general comments of praise that weren't really helpful and did not refer to the process of learning.  I tried to shift the focus in my classroom to the process instead of just the outcome.  I can't really know what sort of difference it might have made.  I can only hope that it helped in a small way.  I am grateful to have read Po Bronson's book, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, in which "The Inverse Power of Praise" is a chapter.  At the very least it got me thinking, and at its best, it made me a better teacher.
   For my students I was hoping they would reflect on their own upbringings or consider how they speak to their own children or younger siblings or other relatives.  And reading the article did cause a lot of reflection.  A side benefit was that many of them realized how important their words can be, a definite win in an English class.

How To Survive (and Thrive In!) A Hybrid Class!

My idea of surviving a hybrid class, once you’ve figured out you cannot possibly deliver all your fine course lectures and lessons and assignments in less than half the physical class time, is to develop your hybrid course FIRST as an online course.  This means developing and/or capturing discussions, assignments, quizzes, videos, lectures, so forth – everything you would normally teach over the normal course session (and more) in a F2F environment.

Instead of restricting instruction in any way, I’ve found that developing the hybrid course as an online course on Canvas FIRST is “freeing.” Doing so allows me to concentrate more on how to make the hybrid class sessions, the hour-and- fifteen-minute weekly meetings, that much more interactive and engaging for students.  Plus, no matter what we manage to get through in our weekly session, I can rest assured that all students have all the information and tools they need to succeed the next week.

My course content, then, is already captured and available online.  So what do my hybrid class sessions look like?

  • I start by putting a summary lesson plan on the board (attendance, questions, last week/this week, other keywords for my own use as well as theirs to “follow along”).
  • I draw my “peace symbol” on the board (three-part agenda: “yours,” “mine” and “ours” – your questions to me, my questions to students, our questions and comments for each other).
  • I make students write the titles, identifiers (ASSIGN1-2, ASSIGN3-4), and due dates of “Assignments Last Week” and “Assignments This Week” (in summary chart form) on the board (this gets students up and moving around and already engaged in a fail-safe environment – sets a good tone and precedent, and echos the theme that this class is in large part their responsibility).
  • I’ll typically ask student volunteers to write examples from the past week’s assignments on the board to prompt discussion and reinforce concepts.
  • I’ll give a five- to ten-minute lecture, occasionally, on this week’s module or key concept(s) – and/or on something I saw in their work that needs more reinforcement and/or needs to be headed off at the pass.
  • I’ll typically ask student volunteers to write examples for upcoming assignments on the board to prompt more discussion – for instance, ideas for their narrative or comparative essays, or their thesis statements, or…or…wherever we are in the process.
  • Whenever possible, I’ll let student volunteers demonstrate some of the technology points as well (Where are our grades at? How do I sign up for Connect?). They like talking from the “teacher’s” computer up front, though often we also help each other back and forth at their seats (I wander around a lot).
  • I reserve the last 10-15 minutes, typically, for any individual questions or one-on-one time needed by students that don’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of the group.

This method contains very little information-dumping — but it has a lot of information application and information sharing.  It is much closer to coaching and facilitating than traditional lecture-based teaching.  WARNING: This is a loud, fast, often all-over-the-map, very interactive session. It can be mentally and physically exhausting.  But it can also be participatory, engaging, stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, and, dare I say it, more effective?

I tell students at the first class that to me, hybrid classes are online classes with a once-a-week support/therapy session.  I’d be hard pressed most weeks to say who benefitted more – me or my students.


Sincerity is best

I learned to be sincere in my teaching when I was teaching at Mesa Community College. I am not good at “edutainment” teaching, I tend to be quite straight forward in my approach, and I thought that students would not like me as an instructor because I was not very exciting. In my second year of teaching at Mesa, I was awarded a Teacher of the Year award. I wondered why, and one of the student that nominated me told me the reason was because I cared about their learning. She said that it was clear that I cared, and that the caring was what mattered, not the “smoke and mirrors” and dazzling effects. I have always remembered to be sincere in my caring and approach, and let the rest take care of itself.


Walk 1-2

As a teacher of five hybrid sections, I’m trying to make my feedback comments friendly and focused.  These are some of the comments I’ve given  in response to their first content-based Discussion:

You have your first absence for not submitting a Discussion posting on time. Please see me so that I can help you be successful in our hybrid format.

You will earn full credit by responding to two of your classmates. Remember that your participation in Discussion is part of attendance in a hybrid course.

I like how you participated in the Discussion over several days!

Your response format really captures the K-W-L, Randy.  Here’s another strategy for your chart!

Do you have any suggestions for me?


Walk 1-1

What an exciting project!  I’m happy to be part of this.

This is my teaching philosophy:

“If students can’t learn the way we teach, then we must teach the way they learn.” 
adapted from Ignacio Estrada
Lori Walk
Education and Reading Faculty



Frequent Assessment

This post is about how changing from chapter tests (one test roughly every 3 weeks) to weekly quizzes dramatically changed the success rates of my students.

I used college algebra students as my guinea pigs. When I looked at my students from fall 96 through fall 98, I saw that they had a 50% chance of passing, 10% chance of a D or F and a 40% chance of withdrawing. Not being happy with these statistics I began a conversation with my wife who taught 2nd grade. She said “Test them more!” So, being a good husband, I complied. Starting in Fall 99 through Fall 2004 I gathered data on how my college algebra students did when I switched from 6 chapter tests and a final to, 13 weekly quizzes a midterm and a final. The results were that now 78% were passing, 7% were receiving a D or F and 15% were withdrawing. Also, I gave the same final that I gave from Fall 96-98 and the scores on my comprehensive final were the same, at around 73% average.

Therefore, I encourage all of you who teach to consider more frequent assessment. There is also a byproduct that I hadn’t anticipated besides the better success rate. That was, that I found that grading smaller tests once a week was not as daunting as looking at a pill of large tests every 3rd week. Grading isn’t as disliked by me as it once was.

Give this a try and as the ad said many many years ago “Mikey Likes It!”