How productive are you?

As longtime readers know, I strongly believe in the power of productivity to improve our work and impact in higher education. Both faculty and administrators can strive to improve their productivity to not only get more done, but to focus on what really matters. New York Times best-selling author and productivity expert Michael Hyatt has developed a wonderful tool that can help you assess where you currently stand and how to think about improving your productivity.

4 steps for dealing with classes during a short-term crisis

Inevitably, colleges and universities will face crises and emergencies. Higher education is not immune to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. In the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech, higher education institutions also learned the importance of dealing with shootings and the need to be able to lock down campus quickly. Beyond these more extraordinary events, colleges have to make arrangements for snow days and other smaller and predictable disruptions. This week, my campus went through one of these short-term crises that got me thinking about the need for quick, decisive leadership. In today’s post, I want to share 4 steps for dealing with classes during a short-term crisis.

Photo credit: Alexandre Breveglieri

Due to an accident during construction, my campus abruptly lost power this week. The east side of campus went down followed about an hour later by the west half losing power as well. The power was out to most of campus for about 3 hours although the education buildings were out for an additional day (after fears that it would be out for 3-4 days due to problems that occurred when power was restored).

Unfortunately, and complicated by the power going out at two different times, there was a great deal of confusion about how to proceed. Some faculty cancelled classes while others met in the dark. The smartest moved outside as it was wonderful weather this week.

Given everything that happened this week, I’ve been thinking about how we deal with a short-term crisis. University leaders have thought out plans regarding a short-term crisis involving public safety (such as a shooting and lockdown). There are plans for weather related issues both short and long term.

I’m not sure we’ve done as good of a job of thinking about an unexpected event such as losing power for a few hours. Below are 4 steps for dealing with classes during a short-term crisis. Obviously, additional considerations should be taken regarding campus residence halls and food service, but I’ll leave such issues to others more qualified in those areas.

Steps for dealing with classes during a short-term crisis

1.  Have a plan and process in place before something happens

Just as institutions have plans in place for making decisions regarding whether to close for snow days or other weather issues, there should be a plan in place to make decisions for unexpected issues. Who is in charge of making a decision regarding classes? Who has authority if that person is unavailable for whatever reason? Who needs to be consulted? Decisions need to be made quickly and everyone involved should know the process.

2.  Communicate as quickly as possible

As soon as university leaders determine the existence and at least some scope of a problem, a message should be sent to the campus community. An positive outcome from the Virginia Tech tragedy is that most campuses have an emergency alert system that can be used to contact all faculty, staff, and students. The message should provide basic information (i.e. campus has suffered a power failure), a sense of the timing/scope if known, and a timeline for future messages. This last point in particular is important for letting everyone know when additional information will be forthcoming. Even if the subsequent message is “we still don’t know how long the power will be out,” you want to keep rumors down as much as possible. Moreover, communication in a crisis is best centralized. This isn’t information you want to share with deans, who share it with department chairs, who then share it with their faculty. You want as few layers involved in the process for both speed and clarity of messaging.

3.  Make an immediate decision, a short-term decision, then a medium-term decision.

One of the problems that occurs when an abrupt crisis occurs is that it take a while to get information. In the case of a power outage, how widespread is it? What caused it? How long will repairs take? It takes time to get this information together. While leaders are trying to figure all this out, everyone else is literally left in the dark. This causes confusion and frustration across campus. The best course of action is to make an immediate decision. For instance, classes are cancelled until 2pm (and as noted in step 2, let everyone know when an additional decision will be made). Making an immediate decision may result in some unnecessary cancellations and the like, but decisive direction is worth this small inconvenience. After giving initial guidance, university leaders have bought themselves a couple of hours to get additional information to make a more informed decision regarding the short-term (should classes be cancelled the rest of the day or can they resume).

After making a short-term decision, you can then make medium-term decisions. What about tomorrow or the rest of the week? Maybe most of campus can get back to normal but certain buildings may still be impacted. Having bought time with the immediate and short-term decisions, leadership can get a better grasp of what is going on and make more targeted decisions going forward.

4.  Over communicate

In these kinds of situations, it is always, always better to over communicate. Provide frequent updates and notices to keep everyone informed. While a small central team may be involved in the immediate and short-term decisions, other administrators such as deans and department chairs should keep their people updated as much as possible. This latter point is particularly important after the short-term crisis is over as there may be individual problems that still pop up. For example, maybe the power outage caused damage to some lab equipment or some problem to someone’s office. Central leadership will be focused on the campus wide issues so deans and chairs need to check in, identify, and help solve more local concerns.

Fostering Deep Learning in College Teaching

College teaching can be one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of faculty work. Unfortunately, very few of us receive much in the way of training on how to be an effective teacher. As part of my role leading the teaching center at my current institution, we host a Teaching Effectiveness Symposium at the beginning of the academic year to help provide professional development for faculty. For this year’s symposium, we hosted two teaching experts, Ken Bain and James Lang, to share their expertise with us. In today’s post, I want to share five key takeaways from their presentations on how to foster deep learning in college teaching.

Fostering Deep Learning in College Teaching

Photo credit: starmanseries

1.  Students take a deep approach to learning when trying to answer questions.

If you think about when you seek out information, I suspect it is when you are trying to answer a question of some kind.  When I need to know to fix something around the house, I go to YouTube and watch videos. And typically not just one, I’ll watch several to get perspectives on how to make a repair. I’m curious and seek out answers because I have an important question that I need to answer.

As instructors, we want our students to go beyond surface level understanding of course content. Surface learners focus on cramming and grades more than a deep understanding and comprehension of course content. Unfortunately, this happens too infrequently. Yet, the research on college teaching clearly demonstrates that students take a deeper approach to learning when they are seeking answers to questions.

2.  Frame class with questions that encourage student curiosity.

Given the fact that people seek out information when they are trying answer questions, you should frame your class with questions that your students will seek to answer throughout the semester. Significantly, students may have questions they want to bring to class, but a primary function of an instructor is bringing questions to the table. In fact, a great thing to do on the first day of class is to introduce questions that will frame your class.

These questions can be a powerful mechanism that can help students think about your course content and apply content to their own experiences.

3.  Provide opportunities for students to try, fail, and receive feedback.

Faculty should provide opportunities both in and outside of class for students to try, fail, and receive feedback. As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. In terms of teaching, this means that we need to look for ways that students can (in often low stakes ways) try and fail. Yet, try and fail is not enough. Feedback from instructors helps students learn from their failure and make improvements for their next attempt. When designing your class, identify what items students need to work on and then design activities that allow students to try, fail, and receive feedback.

4.  Provide opportunities students to recall information.

The research literature on human memory suggests the need to identify opportunities for students to recall information. There are some relatively simple steps that you can take as an instructor to do this. For example, make all tests and exams cumulative that force students to recall material from earlier in the course. At the beginning of a class session, ask students what they remember from previous classes as a way to encourage memory. At the end of class, ask students to tell you or write down the key takeaways from class that day. If you lecture, you can similarly pause your lecture and ask students to make note of the key concepts and points from the lecture.

5.  Make time for what you expect students to know/do.

A mistake that faculty often make is expecting students to know something without teaching them how to do it. For instance, we ask students to make presentations without teaching them how to do it. We ask them to write literature reviews without ever teaching them how to do this. Many faculty fear taking time away from content to do these kinds of things. But, really, how do we expect students to learn something if we don’t teach them?

Personally, it took me years to get to the place where I was willing to let go of a little bit of content in order to help students develop some of the more soft skills that we find vital for their education. Once doing so, I’ve found it enormously beneficial. I believe my students need to learn academic writing and providing feedback alone wasn’t enough. I needed to develop opportunities for them to try, fail, and get my feedback. And I needed to make time for this in class. We all love our content, but this is a small sacrifice worth making to foster deep learning in college teaching.