Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harnessing your personality

This summer, I had the privilege of working with some great people, including my longtime friend and IBL (Inquiry-Based Learning) blogger Stan Yoshinobu, Dana Ernst, Dylan Retsek, and a number of other IBL instructors. One day, we sat on a panel and we were discussing our approaches to getting student buy-in in our courses. As we went around, I was struck by the variety of ways we had to approach this issue. Dylan Retsek described being William Wallace, rallying students into a frenzy of excitement, and Dana Ernst added to that by saying he tries for Robin Williams, i.e., using humor, and William Wallace, and mentioned being a cheerleader for students. I think both Dylan and Dana are excellent instructors, but I doubt I could run my class that way. 

I do use some humor. On the other hand, I doubt that I have ever led a Wallace-like rally, and I don't think I would describe myself as cheerleading either. My classroom demeanor is very low key. In some classes, I have made a straight face and said, "This is what it looks like when I'm not excited about your work," followed by making the same face and saying, "This is what it looks like when I AM excited about your work." In classes where there is a lot of math-phobia, I set the tone for the course early on by having them share how they feel about math. Then I note how many negative attitudes toward math there are, and I tell the class that I want to help move them in a positive direction, but that we will need to do things differently. 

Instead of cheer, I usually offer a simple thank-you to a student who presents work to the class, and I try to include specific points of recognition and suggestions for improvement.

The point is that everyone has their own personality, and making IBL work in YOUR class will require that you find the elements of your personality that help you identify with students in their struggle to learn, and that assuage their fears. Sometimes, instructors let themselves out of implementing key portions of IBL because it they don't feel it fits. I am suggesting that certain kinds of actions are critical, but that you have to find the way that makes them feel right to you.

IBL instructors have to connect with students, and work to communicate to students that the IBL approach will work, but will take patience. This could be rallying them with excitement, or helping them find the feelings that suggest something different is warranted. IBL instructors tend to value giving recognition to students who share their ideas, but the way this is delivered will be based on your personality. 

To borrow an analogy I sometimes use in class, students in an IBL class need to know that as in a swim class, they must be the ones doing the swimming--you can't do it for them--but that you will not let them drown. HOW you communicate this sentiment is up to you.

Make IBL work in your class by finding ways to harness your personality to deliver to students not only your high expectations, but also the message that you will help them find success.


  1. Given the intensity of an IBL environment, it is important to be yourself. Perhaps the most supportive and inspiring version of yourself you can naturally muster, but yourself.

    Students can sense a phony.

    I like this one: "...they must be the ones doing the swimming--you can't do it for them--but that you will not let them drown." But it leads me to a question.

    Do you ever have students who fail to engage, and therefore fail the course? It seems I frequently get one, as soon as the class gets over 20 students, there is one person who tries to hide no matter how much I try to encourage them.

    1. TJ,
      Thanks for your comment and question.

      I have students who fail to engage, but not in every course, even when the classes run to 35. In my case, this person is usually someone who is working too many hours at an outside job and has poor attendance. These are the ones that pain me because I have often seen these students show signs of having a real grasp of what's going on, but because they miss entire segments of the course, their understanding is uneven and is not sufficient to pass a final exam, and their output in presentations and homework drags the grade down instead of boosting them.

      If students come to class regularly, I make sure that I get some engagement from them. That level of engagement is not always sufficient to get them through the course successfully though. I wish I had a succinct description of "the problem" that prevents them from being successful in the course, but it may be more subtle and individual than a simple characterization can capture. Stan Yoshinobu and I sometimes shorthanded the complex of issues related to low output to "the startup problem," but that doesn't really describe exactly what the issues are or how to resolve them.

      Maybe I will dedicate a future post to "the startup problem" and some of the ways I tackle those students who will not voluntarily engage.

    2. Please do-- in spite of having small classes and mandatory attendance (!), I've had several students with the "startup problem" the past few semesters. They all were there, watching, but never (rarely) had anything to present or submit, and wouldn't come in for office hours either. I'm hoping to identify and intervene sooner, but I'd love to hear others' thoughts.

  2. I'll also point out that when you boil it down to the essential elements, personality does not matter. To make an analogy, a medical doctor's personality does not affect his or her ability to use an MRI and draw conclusions from it. While I agree that teaching involves more "bedside manners," what makes or breaks one in the classroom are the skills and practice.

    I like this post in that it's about being true to oneself as a teacher. Be who you are and use good technique!

  3. I was reflecting on this very thing last night as I decompressed from the IBL workshop at Kenyon. It was great to have so many different styles and personalities illustrated by the different facilitators. In particular, I am low-key and not a cheerleader type, so I was encouraged that you have a similar personality, but still use IBL successfully.