Begin with the End in Mind
Note: You may notice that I changed the title of my series to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Instructors.” I am not forsaking my allegiance to you adjuncts, but these lessons apply to all college faculty.
In regard to the second habit of highly successful people, Stephen Covey explains, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction” (p. 98). He adds, “ ‘Begin with the end in mind’ is based on the principle that all things are created twice.” For example, the construction of a house starts when the architect creates a set of plans, after which the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and others build the house guided by those plans.
In one fashion or another we all apply the principle of two creations. Parents plan how they will raise their children, beginning with a mental picture of the type of adults they want them to become. Restaurant owners begin with a business plan long before he serves his first customer. Artists create a mental image of their paintings before brush touches canvas. Of course, not every artist follows this principle, which is why we have something called modern art. (Okay, I admit it. I made up that part.)
When people begin without the end in mind, bad things can happen. Guys, did ever go on a picnic without considering that the attractive river bank where you were headed might also attract mosquitoes? What was your first creation, the one that would assure a comfortable picnic getaway? Oops, you didn’t forget that outcome did you? As your wife [or girlfriend] unpacks the picnic basket she questions, “Didn’t you pack the bug spray?” Ouch! Slap! Ouch! Hopefully those slaps were directed at the mosquitoes, not at you. From a more serious and relevant perspective, this explains why some of your students fail. They don’t plan enough time to complete their term paper, or they don’t study the right material for the final exam. They don’t identify what it will take for them to succeed and plan their steps accordingly.
Covey also says, “We may be very busy, we may be very efficient, but we will also be truly effective only when we begin with the end in mind” (p. 98). This reminds me of occasions when students have complained to me that they studied many long hours and still failed the exam. “She didn’t teach us anything.” “The problems were much harder than the homework.” “He didn’t cover the material in class.” The students may have been “very busy” preparing for that test, possibly also “very efficient,” but their efforts were not very effective. Sadly, however, in academic settings students aren’t the only ones guilty of misguided efforts.
To be truly effective as a teacher you must begin with the end in mind. “What end?” you ask. The learning outcomes or learning objectives for your course. Your first creation, much like the plans for a house, must be a set of lesson plans that will help students learn. If properly designed, your second creation will be a group of educated students. Of course, unlike those carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, some of your students may not follow your plans. So be it. However, it is quite unfortunate, arguably inexcusable, when the first creation, your set of lesson plans, is faulty. I will give you an example to illustrate my point.
Some time ago I had a discussion with a highly intelligent, dedicated, hardworking adjunct. Let me add that he took his teaching assignments very seriously. The subject of our talk was a “less than flattering” set of student evaluations he received the first time he taught a particular course. “I put more time into preparing for this course,” he said, “than for any other course I have taught.” He proceeded to explain his approach and gave me specific examples to illustrate his methods. He convinced me that he had put a lot of time and effort into planning his lessons, and many of his techniques were actually quite good. I was confident that he had told his students what they needed do know; and, as best I could determine, explained it quite well.
As our discussion proceeded, the problem became apparent. I learned that my instructor had not planned his course around the behavioral learning outcomes. This was a career related course, and his students wanted to apply their “book learning” to real world applications. That was what was lacking. His focus had been to cover the course content. However, as with all courses, the content was the means to an end, not the end in and of itself. Think of it this way. Had he been teaching brain surgery, his students would have been able to explain the steps a surgeon should take to remove a tumor from the occipital lobe. However, having never demonstrated their ability to use a scalpel or, for that matter, to even identify the occipital lobe, they would not have achieved a fairly important behavioral learning objective. An extreme metaphor I admit, but hopefully it drives home my point. By the way, if you have not read my post entitled “Don’t Tell College Students What They Need to Know” please do so. It will give you some additional insight.
There is another “end” that I encourage faculty members to keep in mind. Every instructor wants students to give him or her good evaluations. So why it is that many instructors disregard the criteria against which their students will judge them? My advice for the first creation, the plan that will lead to good student evaluations, is two-fold. First, refer regularly to the evaluation form you will be using and do a self-evaluation after each class. If, for example, organization is one of the evaluation criteria, ask yourself if you were well organized. Second, don’t let yourself be surprised by your students’ evaluations, which constitute your final grade in their eyes. Your students know how well they are doing before the final exam because you grade their assignments, quizzes and tests. Have your students grade you along the way. Periodically solicit their feedback. Give them opportunities to share their opinions honestly and openly, which usually also means anonymously.
Let me mention one more way in which college adjuncts should begin with the end in mind. If your goal is to secure a full-time teaching position, this approach is a must. To begin such a quest, Covey advises that you, “identify your center” and the underlying principles that drive your actions. There is no way I can do justice to this topic in this moderately lengthy post, and I would be wise not to try. For one thing, he might sue me for plagiarism. My advice is to read his book.
A Few More Thoughts
Covey tells us that we can be very busy without being effective if we don’t keep the end in mind. Some people lead their lives this way, never realizing how they have been responsible for much of their own misfortune. For years, I have dubbed this the “Warm Fuzzy Feeling Syndrome.” People succumb to my malady when they fail to apply Covey’s first two habits or when they misapply them. Either they don’t expand their circle of influence, or they do expand it and do the wrong things. When you work really hard at something it is easy to get the warm fuzzy feeling that you have done everything you can. You feel good about yourself. And, if things don’t turn out the way you hoped, you absolve yourself of all responsibility and guilt. What more could you have done? Heck, you worked your tail off!
Turning to another realm, Covey’s admonishment for us to begin with the end in mind is part and parcel of good planning strategy. In fact, this is a commonly used approach for strategic planning in the corporate world. It starts with what is commonly known as a vision statement. Vision of what? Vision of what your company will be at some point in the future. Do you have a vision of your students after they complete your course? How about as they venture forth into the workplace?
Covey’s message is also central to every model for instructional design I have studied. A formal gap analysis is part of many of those models. The instructional designer identifies the gap between the current state of knowledge and behavior and the desired end state. For college instructors, the gap is the difference between the entry level knowledge and skills your students possess and the behavioral learning outcomes they are expected to achieve. Your job is to devise strategies that will help them bridge that gap. If you do no more than cover the course content, you are only identifying gap. If students drop out of your course, this may be why. The gap may be far to wide for them to jump on their own.
One more thought. Working on this post reminded me of something I read a few years ago. It was in Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. Warren quoted Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, “The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder – a waif, a nothing, a no man,” (p. 27). The purpose of an instructor is to help his or her students achieve the learning outcomes of the course. The metaphorical image of an instructor at sea in a boat without a rudder is applicable to those who are not driven by this purpose. By the way, if students accuse you of being disorganized and not explaining things clearly, you may be a professorial waif cast adrift in a boat without a rudder. Yikes! Not good!
In closing, I hope that this edition of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective College Instructors will be of help to you. Next week, Monday April 19th to be exact, I will apply the third habit for highly successful people to college teaching. I will discuss what it means for a college teacher to “Put First Things First.”
© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.
Posted April 11, 2010