The 4th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Think Win/Win

The first three of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are: 1) Be Proactive, 2) Begin with the End in Mind, and 3) Put First Things First. Covey tells us these are the habits that lead to Private Victory. In the preceding posts, I applied these habits to the job of teaching college students. I will briefly (very, very briefly) summarize what I covered.

A Summary of the First Three Habits of Highly Effective College Instructors

A highly effective college instructor (HECI) identifies concerns and continuously seeks to expand his or her influence in order to alleviate them. This is a form of continuous quality improvement (my words, not Covey’s). For example, the HECI does not ignore the fact that some students lack prerequisite knowledge. Within reason, he or she provides those students the assistance they need. Also, the HECI has a vision of what can be and what should be. Student learning outcomes are part of that vision, and those outcomes direct his or her instructional design efforts. Furthermore, the HECI is organized and disciplined. He or she identifies what is important and makes plans to get those things done. The HECI always comes to class prepared and responds promptly to the needs of his or her students.

The 4th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Covey’s fourth habit – Think Win/Win – is foundational to achieving what Covey calls our Public Victory. He begins by defining the “Six Paradigms of Human Interaction” (p. 206 – 211):

• Win/Win
• Win/Loose
• Lose/Win
• Lose/Lose
• Win
• Win/Win or No Deal

I will cover these in a slightly different order than Covey and begin with the paradigms we should avoid, the first being the Win/Lose paradigm.

The Win/Lose Paradigm

The concept of Win/Lose is ingrained in our culture. I expect that the majority of Americans were brought up this way. For example, some of us had parents who continuously compared us to our siblings. “Why can’t you behave like Alice?” would send any child the message that Alice was a winner and he was a loser. Many of us had teachers who ingrained this mindset into our set of values and beliefs. Can you remember how you felt when your fifth grade teacher said something like, “I am very proud of Alicia, Emily, and Juan who earned A’s on the social studies test”? Your teacher graded on the curve, so only three students could get A’s. You lost, but hopefully, you didn’t lose as badly as Bruce and Dominique, who got the lowest scores which meant F’s.

The Win/Lose paradigm has its place in sports, but in my opinion that is the only place for it. The Win/Lose paradigm is generally dysfunctional, and it … WARNING: Political commentary alert. A political comment lies ahead. … is one reason why there is so much civil unrest in our world.

The Lose/Win Paradigm

The Lose/Win paradigm is one more commonly played out by students. “I am a loser. I can’t do math. You win. Go ahead and flunk me.”

I don’t think too many college faculty members are guided by this mindset, but there are a few. There are those who lower their standards to appease their students. An instructor who says, “Okay, Philip, I will give you one more week to complete your essay,” loses. He or she loses credibility in the eyes of students. He or she loses control of the course schedule. He or she loses valuable time grading a late assignment, time that would have been better spent preparing for the next class.

The Lose/Lose Paradigm

Covey tells us that, “When two Win/Lose people get together – that is, when two determined, stubborn, ego-invested individuals interact – the result will be Lose/Lose,” (p. 210). Sooner or later, every instructor must deal with strong willed, defiant students. When this occurs, consciously or subconsciously, some instructors may want these students to fail. The instructor may repeatedly call on a student with the intent of publicly exposing his or her lack of preparation. The student becomes angered and humiliated. Rather than motivate him come to class prepared, the instructor’s actions prompt retaliatory behaviors. The student thinks, “I’ll get even with that @#%^$,” and in one fashion or another does.

In a Lose/Lose scenario, the student sees the instructor as the enemy and wants him or her to fail. The student may display disruptive and distrustful behavior. The student will almost certainly give the instructor a bad evaluation. If there is enough “bad blood,” the student will complain to the dean.

The Win Paradigm

The Win mentality is not about competition. It is not about the other person winning or losing. These people are solely concerned about their own success. I have only met one instructor who convinced me that this was his primary consideration. This person never taught for me, but he applied for a position. Several weeks before the start of the summer term, I offered him a job teaching physics. A few days before the term was to start, he informed me that he could not teach because he had been offered a higher paying part-time position at another college. This man was in it for himself only. No integrity! I was angry. But when I thought more about, I was relieved. What I learned about his character was pretty good evidence that he would not have gone the extra mile to help students succeed.

The Win/Win Paradigm

People who subscribe to the Win/Win paradigm seek mutually beneficial relationships. I am reasonable sure that every college instructors will say he or she thinks Win/Win. (I hope you accept my premise, because I don’t have time to ask every one.) I am equally certain that not every instructor applies the Win/Win mentality. I’ll explain.

I once talked to an instructor who was lamenting his students’ performance on a recent exam. He wanted his students to learn, and he was frustrated by how poorly they had done. Learning would have meant they won, but the scores on the exam were the basis for him concluding that they lost. What he didn’t realize was that he was playing out the Lose/Lose paradigm. Mentally, he was frustrated and angry. I think he felt like he was losing in his attempt to get his students to learn.

The instructor and I talked about the test, and I became increasingly convinced that, in this situation, he was playing out a Lose/Lose scenario. He showed me a copy of the test. My impression was that it was pretty lengthy and the wording of some questions was complicated. I suggested that he was putting his students’ ability to read to the test, which compromised their ability to display their subject matter knowledge. His response was, “But they are supposed to know this. I went over it in class, and I told them that it would be on the test.” This was a very good, and very dedicated instructor. Hopefully, he thought about my comments, and avoided future Lose/Lose tests. But enough about this Lose/Lose anecdote.

The principles of the Learning-Centered College are consistent with a Win/Win approach. In his booklet, Creating More Learning-Centered Colleges, Terry O’Banion explains Principle II, which is, “The learning college engages learners in the learning process as full partners, assuming primary responsibility for their own choices,” (p. 16). O’Banion states that students should be, “full partners in the creation and implementation of their learning experiences.” Similarly, Covey tells us that we need to build cooperative relationships. For college instructors there are many such relationships, but none more important than the relationships they create and nurture with their students. These are the relationships I will address.

According to Covey, “From relationships flow the agreements that give definition and direction to Win/Win,” (p. 223). Agreements? What kind of agreement would a college instructor have with his or her students? Of course! The Win/Win relationship a college instructor creates with his or her students begins with the syllabus. When you write your syllabus, keep this in mind. Focus on the positive aspects of learning. Clearly define your role and that of your students in regard to learning. I like to tell my students, “This is not my class or your class; this is our class.”

There are many, many techniques a Win/Win instructor can use. However, I have not been able to avoid a few Win/Lose and Lose/Lose relationships with students, so I do not profess to know them all. The first one that comes to mind is the One-Minute Paper, which gives students an anonymous voice. (Note: I think this is the third time I have referred to the One-Minute Paper, so I confess that owe you a post on that subject.)

Another Win/Win approach is proficiency-based grading, where every student who demonstrates A-level proficiency earns an A. I am willing to bet that none of your students’ learning outcomes conclude with, “… and do it correctly the very first time.” Yet, that often seems to be the way we assess student learning. We give our students one chance to succeed, when we could choose to give them another try. For example, a composition instructor might give students a chance to rewrite a paper, or an HVAC instructor might give students a second chance to submit their sheet metal project. This is not about going easy on the students. It is about giving students the opportunity to learn and to display that learning.

There are other Win/Win strategies an instructor can use, but in my opinion not all instructors can successfully implement them. Why? Because they require certain elements of character that one either has or doesn’t have. The Win/Win instructor must create a non-threatening environment. This instructor must model the behaviors he or she expects like respect. This instructor must earn students’ trust. This instructor must admit his or her mistakes and take action to correct them. This instructor must expend reasonable effort to assure that his or her students succeed. There will be students who do not pass, but the Win/Win instructor never lets a Win/Win student fail.

The Win/Win or No Deal Paradigm

Steven Covey indicates that there will be times when two people cannot find a mutually agreeable solution to a problem, one that benefits them both. If they cannot make a deal, they may agree to disagree and go their separate ways. For college instructors, the most common form of “No Deal” occurs when a student drops their course. Of course, an instructor with too many “Student No Deals” may be in for an “Instructor No Deal” the next semester.

A Win/Win or No Deal instructor makes his or her expectations perfectly clear during the first class session. Therefore, students can make an informed decision to stay in the class or drop it. Again, those expectations should not lead to excessive drops. In addition, a Win/Win or No Deal instructor shows compassion to students who, through no fault of their own, are unable to successfully complete the course. An example would be a student who missed several classes due to illness. The instructor may agree to give the student an “Incomplete” or to drop that person from the course with a “W” grade. The instructor must, however, operate within the rules and regulations imposed by the college. Each college is different, and some policies may prevent the instructor from breaking the deal with his or her student.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, after reading this post, you have determined that you are a Win/Win instructor. Regardless, here is an exercise you might want to try. During the first session of the next course you teach, explain the Win/Win mindset to your students and how it applies to your course. Then break students into groups. Ask half of the groups to identify what winning and losing means to them. Ask the other half to brainstorm what they think winning and losing means to you. I have never tried this, but I am certain that the debriefing phase of this exercise will generate some healthy and productive Win/Win dialogue.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted April 25, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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