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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit! – Aristotle


I recently listened to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and was captivated both by his intense look at how personal habits are developed, as well as surprised at exploited by others for gain. This really got my attention and had me reflecting on how I go about my daily work, those elements that make up my routines, and why so much is totally unaware to me. Personally, taking a periodic look at my professional and personal habits can help me fulfill that ultimate goal to become the best version of myself. And for those of us devoted to the profession of teaching and the improvement of learning a self-assessment of habits can be equally valuable when discussing the next iteration of a course or workshop to identify hidden instructional habits and how tweaks may have an more positive impact on our students’ learning.

Let’s look a couple of teaching areas where a change in habits can perhaps lead to more engaging classes and ultimately an increase in performance and learning.

Keeping Course Goals and Objectives Alive

In What the Best College Teachers Do Ken Bain acknowledges the importance of planning your courses backwards al a Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue in Understanding by Design (both available from the Kaneb Center Library), just as Stephen Covey’s mantra from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People suggests we should always “begin with the end in mind”.  As teachers, we must have a habit of connecting each class meeting, assignment, or activity to the big questions of the course and how individual components of student engagement with the material align to partially fulfill respective course goals. It’s important to ask how do our activities and assignments provide connection to the knowledge, skills, or attitudes we are seeking in our students? We want students to continually reflect on why they are with us each class and how each class meeting and assignment leads them closer to fulfilling the course destination. Doing this also helps instructors design more effective assessment activities to better evaluate student evidence of learning throughout the length of the course.

The Beta Mindset and Taking Chances in the Classroom

Many established professors also have the habit of teaching a repeatedly offered course using the same notes (slightly updated), class format, textbook, etc. from semester to semester and year to year. We’ve heard the proverbial if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But changing things up can be risky and uncomfortable and at the same time exciting! Teaching innovation professor and blogger John Spencer advises and encourages fearless risk-taking in the classroom through a “beta mindset” in which one is open to trying something out, accepting whatever initial results (good or bad) then refining and readying for the next version to be used again. Most valuable to this method is making refinements based on student feedback. Though sometimes shocked for changing the classroom routine, most students appreciate doing something fun and different with purpose. The bottom line is student learning may blossom when faculty change it up, get innovative and not to wait until it’s perfect. Just go for it!

Our oldest son on a cold, October day in 2014.

We’ve known for years the importance and value of good personal habits to improved performance and results so much so that Stephen Covey enriched his life personally and financially from them! If you only encounter intermittent waves in your normally smooth classroom and learning environments, take a chance anyway and step out on those waters with new habits that result in unanticipated waves of student success!

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