You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When you first enter your classroom each semester, you begin making an impression on your students. The strength of this impression can create interest in your discipline and a willingness to learn, which can lead to enhanced class performance and future intellectual partnerships. This paper details ways in which you can favorably impress your students and potentially improve their attitudes toward and interest in your discipline, as well as improving their academic performances. Specifically, I discuss first-day and follow-up activities to enhance student self esteem, teaching patterns which reinforce student learning, and interaction patterns which encourage positive images of engineering and engineering technology professors. The paper addresses the overall conference theme of "Progress Through Partnerships" by detailing ways to increase cooperation between professors and students. The specific session for which this paper is written is entitled "Empowering Students."
I can usually hear the students in my classes halfway down the hall as I wheel the media cart from the elevator. They chat with those next to them and those across the room about a test taken in a previous class, an "impossible professor," a good class, a campus event, whatever--the important point for me is that their conversations don't stop when I enter the room. I start greeting each of them as I position the cart at the back of the room, entering into their conversations, asking those who "called in sick" at our last class meeting how they feel, complimenting new haircuts or new shoes, asking those in suits where they are interviewing today. Their conversations continue until they sense the social time is over, at which time they transform into efficient, serious classes set on accomplishing the day's objectives. I am inwardly pleased, knowing we are going to have another good day.
I don't know if your classes start this way, but I do think there is value in the student-professor acceptance level this scenario suggests, as well as the relative ease with which students set about learning course material. How does this happen? Through very careful planning and execution throughout the course, with special attention paid to the first few days of class at the beginning of the semester. In preparing for new students each semester, we professors have a propensity for "getting wrapped around the axle" of our course content, so much so that in the first days of class, we launch such a barrage of information--class rules, assignments, grading standards, how valuable our course is--that we sometimes forget where our students are in all this and how we, as class leaders, are being perceived by persons who have never met us before. This paper concerns ways to positively impress students and to use effective teaching and interaction patterns to encourage more positive images of university professors.
How many good teachers have you had in your academic experiences? What do you remember about them? Are any of them from colleges and universities? Most educators are familiar with a list of characteristics of good and bad teachers.
|1. Cooperative, democratic
2. Kind, considerate
4. Wide interests
6. Fair, impartial
7. Sense of humor
8. Good disposition
9. Interest in student problems
10. Recognition, praise
12. Proficient in subject
|1. Never smiles
3. "Flies off the handle"
4. Explanations not clear
5. Partial/ has favorites
6. "Picks on" some
10. Not friendly
(Peoples, 1992, p. 15)
Is it possible to convey the good qualities in initial class meetings? Let's look at advice offered by Wankat and Oreovicz, authors of Teaching Engineering (1993). "Give students all the information about the course structure that you can" (p. 36). They suggest the usual information: course number and name, professor's name, office location, textbook, course outline, grading scheme, and so on. Then they suggest starting the course on the first day; "Send the message that you mean business. The students will not be ready to start business, but they are never ready until you get them started" (p. 37). They also suggest presenting the first lesson "with enthusiasm and a sense of excitement" and assigning homework. The authors then write that the second day of class "is surprisingly important since many students consider it the first 'real' class of the semester" (p. 38). They state that the first and second classes set the tone for the semester and advise starting the class slowly (but on time), so that students "can switch gears and start thinking about the class." This is to occur at the beginning of the class, and then we are advised to cover the topics named in the course outline, without allowing students "to lead you off on extensive tangents" (p. 39).
If you were a student in a class opened this way, which of the outstanding characteristics mentioned above would you single out as having been adequately conveyed? Although the content concerning course information and acting with enthusiasm is good, the tone of the writing doesn't sound pleasant and considerate. I maintain that professors miss excellent opportunities to favorably impress students on the first days of class by reading the syllabus to the class and launching into their first lecture.
The Importance of Initial Class Meetings
We exist in a complicated environment, which changes almost every day by becoming more complex. How do we cope? With shortcuts. We can't analyze all the aspects of each person and event we encounter each day. Instead, we use stereotypes, rules of thumb, or heuristics to classify things according to a few key features. When we encounter them again, we can respond without thinking when we see one of these "trigger" features.
Thus, with little encouragement and little attention paid to stimulus, we construct automatic behavior patterns easily. And all this hinges on encountering the person or event for the first time. Moreover, once a perception has been established, it is easily perpetuated. Some of you may be familiar with the psychophysics lab demonstration with three pails of water--one hot, one room temperature, and one cold. Students are asked to place one hand in the cold water and one in the hot, and then place both in the room temperature pail. The result: the cold-water hand feels hot water, while the hot-water hand feels cold water. Thus the same thing--room temperature water--can seem different depending on the event that precedes it (Cialdini, 1993).
What we do at the initial class meetings invokes automatic responses, which are perpetuated very easily in students' minds. If we read the syllabus to the students and launch into our first lectures, what are the students likely to think? Are we willing to accept the stereotypes students have already formed through their prior experiences with faculty? I suggest that we should work on a few of the good-teacher attributes during initial class meetings, especially since students who like us and trust us are far easier to work with and move in the directions we choose. Robert Cialdini, an influence expert from Arizona State, states, "Few of us would be surprised to learn that, as a rule, we most prefer to say yes to requests of people we know and like" (p. 136).
POSITIVE TEACHHING AND INTERACTION PATTERNS
How do we become more likeable? Cialdini posits several personal characteristics to which people generally respond well: physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact, and cooperation. Being physically attractive causes others to assign other traits: talent, kindness, honesty, intelligence, etc. This is due to the halo effect, which occurs when a positive characteristic of a person dominates the way that person is viewed by others (p. 140). For the majority of us who are average looking, though, Cialdini states that good grooming goes a long way, perceptually speaking. The halo effect also covers other characteristics, so if attractiveness is not a strong suite, we can work on others.
"We like people who are similar to us," and the similarity can extend to opinions, personality traits, background, lifestyle, and dress (p. 142). Studies done in the 1970s showed that students would give phone money to those similarly dressed two-thirds of the time and only one-half the time when they were dissimilarly dressed. I'm not suggesting here that we professors don teeshirts, shorts, sports shoes, and wear our caps backward. However, I have found that students see me as being more approachable when I wear a shirt and slacks, rather than a suit. I always make it a point to introduce myself on the first day and give a bit of my background, always stating that I was born and raised on an Indiana farm, which evokes responses from our midwestern students. Other ways to share innocuous information (but which makes us appear more likeable) are talking about hobbies or current events (sports stories, movies, lines at the bookstore, student jobs, etc.).
The first days of class are ideal opportunities for this information--you share yours and have students share theirs, as well. Have students introduce themselves to the class on the first day and ask them to share a one-line bit of information about themselves on the second day as well. Don't be afraid to use an ice-breaker on the first days; students like them, and the acquaintances established then save time later when you set up teams.
Another characteristic we can pursue in appearing more likeable is to give compliments and let students know we like them and care about them. Cialdini cites studies which show that we "tend, as a rule, to believe praise and to like those who provide it, often when it is probably untrue" (p. 145). A study with North Carolina men shows how helpless we are against praise. They received comments from a person who needed a favor from them; some got only positive comments, some only negative, and some got a mixture. Not surprisingly, the men liked the positive commenter best, even though they knew the person needed a favor, and they liked the person whether the comments were true or not. I am not suggesting that we professors should work at being flatterers, but when you consider the numbers of ways we critique students, a positive focus certainly wouldn't hurt. Even if we have negative comments to make, we should be sure to preface them with positive statements and follow negative comments with positive ones--make a virtual sandwich.
After a test in my classes, I call top scorers to congratulate them. I also pay attention to their appearances, and when they have performed well during class, I call out to them as they leave, "Good job," and call them by name. We should also have positive expectations of students. (Wankat & Oreovicz, 1994) Tell a class that they are good if they have performed up to your expectations. Praise doesn't cost much, and it goes a long way toward enhancing student self esteem.
Contact and Cooperation
A final characteristic in the pursuit of likeability is that of contact and cooperation. We like things that are familiar to us, and familiarity plays a role in all sorts of decisions. Cialdini states, "Often we don't realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past . . . and greater liking leads to greater social influence" (p. 146). How can professors use this influence technique? Since I take attendance with a sign-in sheet in each class, I sometimes ask students to supply information they don't mind sharing with the class--student plans for vacations, summer jobs they've had, how they feel (especially when they look tired or when it's raining or snowing outside), their best birthday gifts, their hometowns--whatever comes to mind. I also print the names and phone numbers for each class member (with permission) and have them use name tents throughout the semester. At random intervals, I ask if anyone has anything good or bad to share with the class; we get to know who has just become engaged, whose child just had a birthday, who celebrated an anniversary of some sort--human interest material that helps us become more familiar with each other. Students report that they become quite comfortable in class because they know everyone.
Other Principles of Influence
Another principle of influence is that of social proof; we determine correct behavior in any given situation by finding out what others think is correct. Those of us who have spent time on college campuses know this to be especially true. As much as students want to declare their independence and individuality, they dress in miraculously similar ways and seek peer group activities with great vigor. Cialdini tells us that "when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct" (p. 106). What better time of uncertainty to consider than the first days of class! If professors show up, well groomed and acting in caring ways, and the day's activities include interaction with others in the class, the positive feelings of most should abound. Even traditional non-responders will pick up on the spirit and may respond in due time.
Another influence principle at work here is that of reciprocation--repaying what another person has provided us. If professors on the first days of class arrange for positive interactions, students usually reciprocate with positive behavior themselves. Then, another influence mechanism comes into play. "Once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment" (p. 51). In other words, if professors can get off on the right foot with students and the students respond positively, they are likely to retain that positive outlook and behavior because they have made an internal commitment to that behavior. If you have ever agreed to accept a "trial" issue of a magazine, for example, you should know that the publisher is hoping that, having made a step toward commitment, you will feel the necessity to follow through and subscribe for a year or more. The same principle holds true in learning contracts, which some professors use. The main idea is to commit yourself and your students to positive, caring behavior and concern for others.
A final look at affecting student performance with initial classroom interaction will include input from cognitive psychology, which "provides models of human learning and knowing--that is, how people acquire, organize, retrieve, and use information"tl (Halpern, 1997). Most professors are aware that no single teaching technique works with all learners, simply due to the different ways all of us have of organizing knowledge, both internally and externally. Most educators also know that students enter our classrooms with their own understandings of how the world works and that our job as educators is to provide information, check for understanding, and provide corrective feedback. Halpern states that students frequently fail to apply class learning to the real world because educators fail to focus on transferability. Halpern suggests:
(1) what students learn depends on what and how much prior knowledge and
experience they have;
(2) making frequent use of real-life examples in class helps students apply classroom learning to the world outside of school;
(3) at the start of the semester, educators should start by having students give their own explanations of the subject to be studied; so that
(4) educators can present facts, stressing the differences between the facts and students' initial understandings; and
(5) later in the semester, educators can ask for explanations again, so that students can reflect on their prior knowledge and subsequent learning. (p. B5)
An advantage of this technique is that students learn to apply underlying principles to new settings, thus making them more flexible and able to recognize new paradigms.
I can't think of a better way to start a class than to discover what students actually know about what they are supposed to know when they enter your classroom. Some student time spent on distilling previous learning and some professor time spent on showing how class material fits into their composite learning pictures seem like time well spent. Who knows--you might even grow to like one another in the process!
Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
Halpern, D. F. (1997, March 14). The war of the worlds: When students' conceptual understanding clashes with their professors'. The Chronicle of Higher Education XLIII, (27), B4-5.
Peoples, D. A. (1992). Presentations plus (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Wankat, P. C., & Oreovicz, F. S. (1993). Teaching engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Wankat, P. C., & Oreovicz, F. S. (1994, January). A different way of teaching. ASEE Prism, 3, (5), 16.
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