Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Know this Subject... Do I Still Have to go to Class?

I recently had a wonderful visit to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (in Green Bay) where I did a Chatty Professor presentation. The students there were incredibly welcoming and engaged!

I shared some general communication tools, giving students the right words to say to deal with pesky, but common class issues, such as lateness, absences, and grade goals. Then we talked about how to handle sensitive issues that frustrate students: When an entire class fails an exam/assignment and when a class is boring.

Once my presentation concluded, I opened the floor for questions. A student inquired about a topic that isn't as common, but definitely occurs in college:

"I'm in an Intermediate Calculus class and am acing it. I feel like going to class isn't worth it. I could just go on test days and be fine. I talked to the instructor and he sort of said that would be okay. My mom does not think it's okay. What do I do to make my mom happy, but not have to sit through a class where I already know what's going on?" 

Now, I get that many students only wish that they could be in this position, right?

I empathize with this student. It is frustrating to feel like you are wasting time in a class when you are solid about what you're learning.

Here is my response:

-The student did the absolute right thing going straight to the instructor and telling that person what was going on. You can say, "This information is really easy to me. I'm getting through the assignments and tests with no trouble and getting all A's." (Goes without saying that you should have proof of this in the instructor's gradebook).

You can also ask, "Does the college offer a test-out option or would your department consider creating one?" (My college does not offer a test-out option in speech, but our department has discussed developing one for our public speaking course, so it is reasonable to at least ask, even if the possibility doesn't exist at that moment).

-I do not think bailing on the class time is the best move, particularly when a student can use his/her command of the subject to a serious advantage. How? By becoming a teaching assistant--and boosting experience and resume content!

Say to the instructor, "Maybe I can be of help to you. I could work with a group of students who are struggling."

The instructor may even ask you to help with other class-related activities or assignments. The possibilities are wide open!

-Let's say the instructor doesn't need your help or won't take it. That doesn't mean you can't start your own underground movement to assist others in your class. You can chat with your fellow students or send an e-mail through a course management system letting others know you are available.

-Then, you can ask the instructor, "Is there a tutoring or resource center where I can help students who are taking other classes?" This broadens your base of help and you could even earn some money for your tutoring services!

I had a student, Spencer Wright, who took several of my courses and was a masterful writer/speech outliner. He got a job working in my college's Writing Center and, lucky me, Spencer was assigned as the first student to help with both English and Communication classes! This meant that my students could make an appointment with Spencer and gain his help with their outlines. Spencer was crazy-busy that term; my students flocked to him before sending their outlines to me for review. The students who saw Spencer had some of the best speech content. I felt so lucky to have a student working behind the scenes to help my class. I valued his input more than I can adequately express!

Could you be getting some extra sleep rather than going to this class that you could ace in your sleep?


Could you be hanging out on campus and making new friends?

Of course.

Could you be spending your time working on another class that you are struggling with?


But think about this: Knowing and being able to apply what you know--and seeing proof of that via rock-star grades--is excellent. Explaining what you know to others, helping them process information and apply it, will cement your knowledge and expand your communication ability in ways that will make you that much more excellent... and increasingly employable!

It's work experience while you're in college!

(Have I previously reported in this blog how important communication ability is in the workplace? Oh, wait... Yes, I have!).

Two quick end-notes to these tips:
-First, make sure that in the midst of helping others that you don't fall behind in your own work. Reel in your time if you suddenly find that you are struggling to maintain those A's or are suffering in another class.
-Next, a few weeks before the class ends, ask your instructor for a letter of recommendation. I wrote suggestions for starting this conversation for MyCollegeGuide.org not long ago. This should be an easy write for the instructor since you've not only done great work, but you've helped others improve, too! This is one letter that can speak directly to both your academic and professional talent, so grab it before you leave that class!

So how did my advice go over with the student? Really well, actually! The student's entire face sort of lit up after I made the suggestion that he stay in the class and become the teacher's right hand man. He said he hadn't considered such an idea before and he was going to check out the possibility.

I bet his mom was proud!

Students, I've said it before, but I'll say it again... I love answering your questions, so please send them on! How have you handled a class where you knew the material really well? How did you help others? Did you stop attending or continue?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let's Chat About: How to Discuss Participation Points

It's time for another quick discussion in my not-quite-so-new "Let's Chat About" segment! 

Does your prof give points for participation? 

If so, do you know how that grade is calculated? 

I saw this Inside HigherEd post back in July about how much participation points should/should not count toward a class. It made me think back to my own college days when I'd see "Participation" mentioned in the syllabus. . . with no clear explanation of how those points happened. 

I always wondered if the prof made little checks next to my name every time I opened my mouth in class. Or, did my mere presence in class presume my participation? Or, was there an entirely different, more objective formula for calculating those points that I didn’t know about?

(Did my professor scream, "Muhahahahahaha" when figuring up those points? I wonder...)

From your prof's perspective, participation points can be derived a number of different ways: 
-How often you open your mouth in class and constructively contribute to class discussion
-How much you attend class
-How actively you participate in group and partner activities
-How many times you ask questions and propose answers (not to mention the quality of those questions and answers)
-How substantively you write and respond to others on an external discussion forum, Wiki, blog, etc.

These are just some examples; there are countless others.

Bottom line: If your syllabus talks about a participation grade, those points should not be a mystery. 

So what's the communication lesson here?

Ask questions about how your participation relates to your overall grade! How do you do that? 

Here are tips: 

1) Go back and look at your syllabus. If participation points exist, are they clearly explained? Hopefully the prof discussed what he/she expects on the first day, but if you are unsure and the syllabus doesn’t define the requirement, say, "I noticed on the syllabus that 20% of my grade is based on participation. I want to make sure I understand what to do to earn those points."  

2) If there are not distinct participation points mentioned in the syllabus, but other statements allude to interaction in class (think attendance, contributions to discussion, participating in activities, etc.), then your prof may not actually give you points for participation, but could take it into consideration later if you are thisclose to getting a higher grade. You certainly can ask your prof, "I don't see participation counted in our overall grade, but does it make any difference when you are determining my final grade?" 

If your prof has an attendance policy and you can lose points for not being there, showing up is a measure of participation. However, being there in body isn't all that your prof expects from you, so find out what you need to do. 

3) If your syllabus does state that you need to show up to class, speak up in class, and play the prof's reindeer games in class in order to earn your participation grade, find out how those points are tracked. Does your prof give you a check mark every time you utter a word? Is your attendance a declaration that you are participating? First, ask: "Can you tell me how I'm doing on my participation points so far? My goal is to earn full points in this area.” Or “Am I meeting your expectations for participation?”

Then, you can add, “Is there a way I can keep tabs on my participation to make sure I’m meeting all the requirements?” If your prof is using BlackBoard, Angel, or another course management system, maybe you can view these points in the gradebook yourself.

If the prof tells you that you need to speak up more or contribute in class differently, say: “Can you give me an example of what you expect?” If you feel you are doing more than you are getting credit for, then ask, “How are the points tracked? I'm concerned that some of my participation is being missed."

4) If your participation involves online work, such as discussion board posts/responses, and you are not receiving full points, here’s specific advice on how to expand your writing.

5) If you are unable to participate in class in the way that is expected of you (channeling this post with Melvin whose cultural norms did not support him speaking openly in class), then you need to tell your prof specifically, “I am struggling with speaking out in class and I know it is expected. I am worried about earning my full participation points. Do you have advice for something else that I can do?”

You can ask: 
-"Can I submit questions to you ahead of time?"
-"Can my participation in paired or group situations count more fully?"
-"Can I do additional work in another area?"

Your prof may or may not agree, but talk about it so you aren’t blindsided by fewer points.

You may also want to consider speaking out in class even once or twice just to see how it feels to share your thoughts openly. Maybe you’ll find a newfound confidence in sharing your voice!

Best wishes to you, wonderful students, as you participate in all the wonderful opportunities available to you in your classes! I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Colleagues, I abandoned participation points a long time ago. I felt that participation would bear itself out in the many other opportunities that I have for collaboration. What do you think about the Inside HigherEd piece? I’d love to hear!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dear Diary, Today I Practiced My Speech (Again!): How One Veteran Presenter Preps

(I have a love of public speaking that borders on the ridiculous. For years, I was a competitive public speaker with Toastmasters International in my leisure time--I guess it was my "sport"--before I ever started teaching. Even though I stand before a classroom all the time as an educator, I deeply respect the art and craft of public speaking, and I strive to keep my muscles strong! That means speaking whenever possible. Students frequently ask me about my practicing strategies, how much, how often, what it looks like. I think students perceive that since speaking comes so easily to me, I must just get up and go. I documented my prep process from an engagement I had several days ago. I hope it will be helpful for every student to see how much time even a seasoned speaker puts into speech prep. Enjoy!) 

August 1, 2011:
It's my birthday. 

My cell phone rings and Beth, my new speaking agent, tells me that my dream of sharing my "Chatty Professor" message is about to come true:

"I have some good news! The Council of Unions and Student Programs (CUSP) wants you as their keynote speaker!"

After digesting her words, I go into audience analysis mode: Who is my audience? Beth said I'd be speaking in front of student leaders from all over the state. A half-hour later, I'd conduct a second presentation for student activity directors/leadership advisers from the various community and technical colleges.

I have a little over a month to prepare the presentations. The big day? September 7. 

August 5 - 7:
I speak with the CUSP organizer for more audience analysis. How many people? Are the students diverse in age? What can I extract from my core communication message to benefit each group? After the conversation, I e-mail my topic plan:

-For the student leaders: 1) How communication excellence in college helps students brand themselves; and 2) Specific interpersonal communication strategies (I called them "words-on" strategies... not "hands-on"... what do you think?) to manage interactions in leadership and group situations.


-For the advisers/directors:  Communication strategies around coaching, delivering feedback, and starting difficult discussions; how directors can model communication for students so they can "say it forward" (I'm on fire with the phrases!).

The organizer tells me I've got it, so I can now begin writing. 

August 8:
I've used the same method of speechcrafting for years: I always write out my full speech as an essay. In this case, I have two speeches to write. With the student version, I face a hiccup: 

Speeches have “color” when we use stories and examples from the audience’s real life. But I’m not a student. I haven’t been a student for a long time now. I need an actual student to help me out--and one who is a leader. I leave placeholders in my text to fill in later.

August 10-12:
I review my word-for-word content, reading it out loud over and over... scrutinizing the sound and combination of the words, the rhythm of the sentences. If I have a slew of long sentences, I won't be able to capture breath easily. I make changes accordingly. 

I am still missing my student examples, but I finalize the text by the 12th. Then, I turn my full manuscript into large-font, key word notes. Here is a Camtasia tutorial I created for Oxford University Press's Understanding Human Communication text that explains the process.

August 10-14:
Vacation ('s all I ever wanted... Vacation... had to get away! I digress...)!

No work on my speech, but I feel good about my head start. I'll start the actual practicing right when I get home.

August 15, 2011
My daughter is in camp and my son is in preschool, so I have ideal practice conditions: I am alone!

I never, ever practice in front of other people. I also don't practice in front of the mirror. (If these tactics work for you, by all means, work them!).

I print out my large-font, key word notes and begin.

Choppy and fumbled best describes my delivery at this stage.

The message never sounds the same from the perfectly constructed version, so this initial practice session is always a difficult transition. However, I'm striving for thought-to-thought, conversational tone--not rehearsed-sounding word-for-word delivery. I want my audience to feel like I'm engaging with them... not talking at them.

I'm not timing myself on this pass. That will come soon. Right now, I have two presentations that I'm verbally clunking my way through.

August 16 - 19:
Kids are still gone during the day, so my practice continues. Now I’m timing myself. Content sounds more fluid, but I'm unable to get a seamless pass-through. 

I struggle to gauge the timeframe due to the massive audience interaction in both presentations. I try to predict how long people take to talk. I nod and say a bunch of “uh huh’s” in response to an invisible audience. 

August 21:
Family is home. I tell my husband I have to go to the store. I sit in the parking lot and talk out the intros of both presentations. I've forgotten one set of notes at home. I consider tattooing them to my forearms.

August 23: 
I tap my Twitter pal, Matthew T. Forrest (@matthewtforrest), a superstar student, social media intern for YouTern (http://www.youtern.com), and PTK president at a Massachusetts community college for some student examples. We schedule our conversation for the next few days.

August 24-26:
Continue practicing both presentations at least once per day, but now I have another deadline: My daughter will be out of camp for 10 days soon and I have a bunch of "life" to do before she's there. Her first day of school is the day of my presentation, so I will not have another "alone" day until the actual gig.

I'll be spending a lot of time in parking lots.

August 29:
I interview Matthew, who gives me great material. I am incredibly grateful. I easily incorporate his examples, cite him, and soon commit those additions to memory.

August 30 - 31:
My daughter is home now, so my only practice opps are when she has a playdate. Of course, I want to play with her, too. When she is with a friend or watching some TV, I take advantage of practice time in my bedroom behind a closed door.

Then I have to deal with one of our cats, Catbert, loudly meowing, breaking my concentration and rhythm. I send him out.

Just when I start the intro again, the damned cat cries outside the door (equally distracting!). I let him back in, trying to ignore him rubbing his face against the hard edge of the folder that holds my notes.

September 1-3:
No practice... last weekend trip before my daughter goes back to school. I attempt to practice in my head in the car. No go. My 3-year-old screams "Michael Jack-in CD”. Then he toddler-sings his way through “Beat It.”
September 4:
I'm getting very familiar with the grocery store parking lot; our house is well-stocked! Since my practice time now occurs in bits, I run through different sections of each presentation whenever I'm alone. I seem to have the introductions down, so I will not practice those again until closer to the presentation. 

September 5-6:
Very little practice in the back-to-school ramp-up. I keep my key word notes by my bed so I can look at them each morning and night.

September 7:

The big day! My car ride is just under three hours. I drop my daughter off for her first day of school, then go home and fully practice both presentations in my kitchen. On the way to the site, I speak them out further in the car—and I listen to a little Michael Jack-in.

September 7, 3:30 p.m.
I'm in a room of 400+ (!!!!!) fired-up student leaders from all over the state. With messaging that they need to “show their spirit” during the conference, they chant, they whoop, they dance. If my usual nervousness feels like moths in my stomach, seeing the size of this audience feels like large butterflies-to-baby-bats (not full-sized bats, mind you—I do have experience at this). I remind myself that I’ve spoken in large auditoriums during my Toastmaster days and I’ll be fine. 

Suddenly, I feel my mind go blank. What’s my first line again?

This is typical for me. I expect it. However, history tells me that I’m going to get up and use my nerves to energize myself and my audience. More importantly, the audience has no idea what my notes contain, so as long as I squeak out something that remotely sounds like it’s supposed to be there, I’ll be okay.

In my speaking experience, I trust.

In my practice investment, I also trust.

I tell myself, “You know this. Go nail it.”

September 7, 3:40 p.m.
I am introduced. My opener flows smoothly and is well-received by the audience. They rise when I ask them to, and respond to my questions. They participate in the role-plays. They are welcoming, energetic, magnetic. 

I’m on fire, too. I now have the “good burn” in my belly that inspires me to project with boom, to pause in strategic places for effect, to work my vocal inflection in a way that sends the deepest, most impactful verbal and nonverbal message.

I am in my element. I am me. This feeling is what I love, love, love about speaking down into my bones.

Then I check on the time. Damn times three. I only have five minutes and my two end-points will likely get left behind. The interaction moments took longer than I thought with this size of an audience.
Fortunately, the points were not included in my key themes that the audience read in their overview. They were extra extras.

I jump into my ending. I seal it up. The students give me a spirited applause.

Off to the next presentation.

Students, I realize that you don’t always have a month-plus to put into every single presentation that you have to give in college (or anywhere, for that matter). But think about it: I know many, many students give themselves too little time for preparation and then wonder why they fumble, have to read their speeches verbatim, and feel so freaked out about it--even ill!

Giving yourself the most lead-time before your presentations actually helps your nervousness. I have delivered tons of speeches. I can’t wing. Don’t put that pressure on yourself either.

If you have a presentation coming up, give yourself a good two weeks, if possible. Even one week, if you work on it every day. Finalize your notes at least 48-72 hours before the presentation and only practice with the notes you are going to use in the presentation.

I know speaking can be stressful. Follow even some of my path with your own prep and it will show. 

You—and your voice—will shine. 

Have questions about an upcoming presentation? It’s what I’m here for! Write in!!! Colleagues, willing to share how you prep for presentations?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's Chat About... Insider Tips to Expand Discussion Forum Posts (Or Any Other Writing That Needs More Depth)

I had a question from a student this past week! Can you tell I'm crazy-excited about that?

I've had a number of comments to the blog--thank you times one million and keep them coming! This question, however, is one that I know impacts many students out there, both those in face-to-face classes and in online environments. This discussion might even help anyone trying to write in a more expansive way.

So, here goes: 

Dear Chatty Professor,
I just wanted to thank you for writing your last post "Why Asking for Help is the New Smart." After I read your blog, I felt encouraged to write to my professor for help about an issue that I'm having in  class (Class name left out for anonymity). I feel my writing is not up to this person's standards when compared to the majority of students who are majors in the field. After I "beef up" my responses as the professor asks, I am still not receiving full points. Do you have any additional tips on how to "beef up" online postings/discussions or improve communications in an online learning setting. Did I mention English is my second language? 


Just for further context, the student included the initial e-mail exchange with the prof, which was awesome (but, just for the record, not necessary to send to me along with your question. Ask anyway!): The student used "I" language, mentioned the specific points of struggle, and asked directly how to improve the scores.

The prof wrote back and said that writing was sound, but not extensive enough. The student needed to meet the "quality" and "quantity" standards for the post. In this case, the prof wanted 14 sentences for each posting--original and response (Just an aside, this is pretty specific. Many profs don't tell the exact line length to shoot for.)

Now for my response: 

"I'm so glad that you wrote to me! Yes, I can definitely give you some tips:

1.  I see that the prof is telling you what to do, but have you asked, "Professor, do you have a sample of what you consider to be an ideal post? It would be helpful for me to see what the students who are getting higher grades are doing."

2.  Along those same lines, a discussion forum rubric is another way to gauge what your prof is looking for. If your prof doesn't have one, maybe you can say, "Would you be willing to let the students create a rubric and add this as an extra assignment?" (even extra credit?). I think having students create the criteria for what is considered a strong discussion forum post (with the prof's guidance) could benefit everyone. 

3.  It's wonderful that the prof is giving you an actual guideline regarding the number of lines he/she wants you to follow in your response. It sounds like your quality is going well (and, in my opinion, that's the harder part), but your prof wants you to add more. Here are ways to do this:

-First, if this is a response, make sure you directly comment on the original poster's material. I tell my students "advance the conversation." So, in essence, you take a look at the post of the person you're responding to then you pull out something from their post that you can paraphrase and carry further. 

So, let's say I'm writing that I disagree with AMC's "Breaking Bad" leaving the air (I'm going to take a really light topic here, although an important one to me!). I discuss that it's a wonderful show. It has won many awards. I also feel that the writers could take the storyline further and the show is being canceled prematurely.

Now, you respond: "Ellen, I really appreciated your comment about Breaking Bad being canceled (acknowledging the point of my comment). I see that you're saying it should stay on the air because the writers can take the storyline further (paraphrasing my comment). You know, I have a different view on this: It seems that Hank is very close to finding out that Walt is really Heisenberg and, really, how much longer can this cat-and-mouse game continue? I also believe that the only way the writers could dramatize this show further is to bring back Walt's lung cancer, and that would just appear to be a ploy to keep the show going." In that response, you have taken my words and advanced them with your own ideas. Certainly, you'd keep writing to meet the line requirement outlined by your prof.

-Now, how to expand: Make sure you are telling and showing. I teach my students this all the time with respect to speech writing. It's one thing to mention a fact or an idea (the "tell"), but you can "beef up" your content by giving examples and background about that fact, as well as your ideas and opinion. This is considered "showing" what you are "telling." 

Here is an example: Often, when my students do their career speeches, they might say, "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an accountant's starting salary can range from the low $40,000s to the mid $60,000s." 

This singular statement "tells" the audience a fact.

Here's what happens when we add some "show" to it:

"According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an accountant's starting salary can range from the low $40,000s to the mid $60,000s. My uncle, Joe Jones, who has been an accountant for the past five years, states that his salary started in the mid-$50,000s because he went to work for a very small company. He also knew that in his town, accountants just starting out didn't earn quite as much. Later, Joe moved to a different state, joined a much larger organization, and his salary increased by about 40%."

-Another way to expand:  Go to your textbook for the topic, itself, and see what the authors are saying. Of course, you can't lift material from the book--that would be plagiarism. However, you can cite the text (my students would get major points for that!) and then build on what the author is saying, whether you agree or disagree.

-Yet another way to expand:  Go to the internet, then to your school's library page, and do some additional research about the topic. Make sure you use credible sources (which is why I recommend going to your school's library search engines, unless you already have a credible body of sites that you are using for the class), of course. The class you are taking seems like it would have ripe possibilities for finding additional material that you can comment on. Put in some key words from the prof's post to help your search. Then, once you find an article or two that would work for you, incorporate that into your post. You can say, "I did some research and found this great article from..." At the end of your post, you can add the link.

-Just generally speaking, when your post seems too lean, keep asking yourself questions to expand: "Why?" and "How?" are a good start to help you continue to "show" what you know. Here are some other question prompts to help you as you read through your initial writing and strive to add more:

-What is the difference between?
-What is interesting or surprising to me?
-What else does this remind me of? What else does this look like?
-How can I tell?
-What is the reason ________ is this way?
-What can I generalize from this? 

I appreciate you telling me that English is not your native language. On my campus, a huge number of my students are also ESL, and I realize that it's hard and sometimes not culturally comfortable to assert what feels like a ton of your thoughts/opinion in a discussion forum post (or in a paper, speech, etc.). Know that your prof wants to hear your voice! Therefore, he/she is giving you the space to share your knowledge and ideas. So, go for it! 

I hope you'll follow up with great grade news!!!

I'm going to share your question on my blog; I believe your issue is shared by many, many students and would be helpful to them.

Please write again! I'm glad to help.

Best of luck to you. I know you are going to do well!

Okay, students, who else is struggling out there? I'd love to hear about it. I've said before and I'll say it again... if I don't know the answer, I have ready-resources and have no problem asking for help! Colleagues, do you have more to add to my ideas for this student regarding "quality" and "quantity" in discussion forum posts?