The 6th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors


Introduction to Synergy

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents Synergy as the 6th Habit.

In the introductory article I posted Friday, I gave a dictionary definition of synergy, which was the “interaction or cooperation of two or more agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.”

I then provided my own definition of synergy as it relates to college teaching.  I wrote the synergy is “the cooperation of students and their instructors to enhance student learning beyond what could be achieved by students or instructors alone.”

While working on this article, I came up with yet another definition related to teaching college students:

Synergy is the cooperation of students and their instructors to facilitate student success beyond what could be achieved by students or instructors alone.

Later in this article, I will explain why I have made this subtle revision.

Steven Covey’s Explanation of Synergy

Covey’s definition of synergy differs a bit from most dictionary definitions.  “Simply defined,” he says, “it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” (p. 262-263).  Dr. Covey also uses the term Creative Cooperation, to convey what he means.

I have taken the liberty of recreating an illustration entitled “Levels of Communication” (p. 270).  It shows the relationship between the two components of creative cooperation –  Trust and Cooperation.

As trust and cooperation build, communications improve.  Interactions move from being defensive to respectful and on the synergistic.

I read and reread this section of Covey’s book, but I still had trouble differentiating synergy from compromise.  My thought was that some of you might have this same problem.  Perhaps there is no clear delineation.  Covey eludes to this when he mentions that synergy requires a “tolerance of ambiguity” (p. 264).  As a “Recovering Engineer,” I like explicit structure in my life.  I want things to be black and white.  Here is an example, albeit a bit simplistic one, that is clearly synergistic:

A boy and his father are hungry for a healthy snack.  They want to pick apples from a tree.  The father can’t quite reach them; the little boy can’t even come close.  The father hoists the boy on his shoulders.  With outstretched arms, the boy grabs two apples.  Together, they accomplished what neither could have done on his own.

So why did I have difficulty understanding how synergy differs from compromise?  First, let me mention something.  Covey admits that synergy is not always possible and that the process of seeking synergy may lead to compromise.  Of course, this is a better result than what otherwise might have been a win/loose or loose/win outcome.  Okay, now let me relate an example Covey provides that bothered me at first.  🙁

Dr. Covey writes about a family that practiced synergy to plan their vacation.  The father wanted to take them on a fishing and camping vacation, one he had been planning for months.  It seemed that mom and the boys had been in agreement on this.  The boys were excited, but as the date approached, mom expressed her concerns.  This was the only time she would be able to get away and visit her elderly mother.  By talking through the situation and “seeking first to understand, then to be understood,” dad agreed to find a location to camp and fish close to where his wife’s mother lived.  While the scenery and fishing would not be as good, mom would be able to visit her mother.

This is a great example of how a family can and should work together, but is this synergy?  To me, this sounded like compromise.  The camping and fishing won’t be quite as good, and mom won’t be quite a close to her mother as she wanted. Then I got it.  Synergy is not defined by “an outsider.”  It is defined by those who are directly involved – those whose cooperative communication led to an outcome, in this case a vacation, that would not have otherwise come about.  So who am I to judge?  The boys may have enjoyed some time with Grandma, and mom may have appreciated the bit of time she spent fishing with the family.

Synergy in the College Classroom

What does it take to create a synergistic environment in the classroom?  Your students must open up to you and you to them.  You may not develop this relationship with each and every student, but I believe every good instructor should try.  Consider Covey’s words when he says, “The more authentic you become, the more genuine in your expression, particularly regarding personal experience and even self-doubts, the more people can relate to your expression and the safer it makes them feel to express themselves,” (p. 267).

Dr. Covey provides an example of synergy in the classroom.  He writes about a class he taught on leadership philosophy and style.  Three weeks into the semester, a class “chemistry” developed and an atmosphere of trust prevailed.  This led to brainstorming followed by “exciting” results.  Together, Covey and his students redefined the class.  They abandoned the old syllabus and text books the students had purchased.  He indicates, “… we set up new purposes and projects and assignments,” (p. 266).

Before each of you runs off on a quest for monumental, metamorphic class transformation, let’s stop and think about this.  If you are an adjunct, if you are a new faculty member, you must operate within constraints.  At my college, you would not be allowed to deviate from the learning objectives in the course outline.  Furthermore, I admonish my entire faculty not to abandon the textbooks that were chosen for their courses.  (Do you think Covey’s students were a bit upset about wasting their money on the text?)  Keep in mind that Covey’s class was populated by mature adults in their senior year of college.

Wow, did I just throw a damper on this synergy thing or what!  Hopefully, “or what.”  With reference to a famous Robert Browning metaphor, you may not be able to grasp the gold ring.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t try.

Having reflected on Covey’s concept of synergy for the last few days, it occurs to me that synergy in the classroom requires many, many things.  It requires:

  • Trust between the instructor and each of his or her students;
  • Trust amongst student, one to another;
  • Mutual respect by all;
  • Teamwork;
  • Good communication skills;
  • A common goal; and
  • Motivation to achieve that goal.

Perhaps you can think of other requirements.  I suspect I will add to this list as times goes by.

I asked myself, what facet of college coursework, what part of course structure and delivery, what aspect of the college instructional experience lends itself best to synergy?  What do you think?  The one thing I came up with is the instructor’s and students’ common goal – for students to succeed in the course.  Note that I did not say their common goal was student learning and achievement of learning outcomes, which would have been in line with my first definition of college classroom synergy.  Student learning is what the shared goal should be.  That is what it is when a dedicated teacher leads a class filled with highly motivated students.  But universally, this is not always the case.  The one common goal is for students to do well enough to get that passing grade and maintain their GPAs.  Yes, some want to learn.  Most of your students may want to learn.  Maybe all of them.  But that isn’t always the case.

Note:  This may be one of the more controversial things I have written.  Leave me a comment.  What do you think is the universal common goal shared by faculty and students?  Does a universal goal even exist?

I have not received feedback from any of you at this time.  (Wait.  How could I?  I am pretty sure I must first write and post this article first before you can read it and make comments.)  Therefore, I am proceeding down my own avenue of synergistic exploration.  I created a list of things instructors want and need in order to help their students succeed.  I then made a list of the things students want and need to be successful.  I looked for a common thread, the basis for a common goal.  Here is what I concluded.  Adaptability and flexibility on the part of the instructor are the key mechanisms for facilitating student success.  The instructor wants to meet students’ needs, and the students want those needs met.  All right, maybe we are getting somewhere.


A good instructor must be flexible.  He or she must adapt to a diverse student population with a variety of beliefs, backgrounds, and biases, not to mention learning styles.  So, how does one accomplish this?  It requires feedback from students.  Honest, open feedback.

Aha! Seems like we have talked about this before.  Everything I have written about getting to know your students, everything about soliciting student feedback, everything about communicating with your students has been aimed at achieving synergy.  Wow, once again I have to admit it, I am half smart!  I knew more about synergy than I realized.

One more thought about synergy before I move on.  Covey emphasizes the value of differing opinions.  He says, “If two people have the same opinion, one is unnecessary,” (p. 278).  He adds, “I don’t want to talk, to communicate, with someone who agrees with me; I want to communicate with you because you see it differently.  I value that difference,” (p. 278).  That reminds me of a banner hung over the entrance to the library at my last college.  It read, “Great minds don’t think alike.”

What does this mean for classroom synergy?  In my opinion, there are few other venues where a group of people come together with a greater array of differing opinions.  This cannot be said about a golf league where everyone loves to play and talk about golf.  This can’t be said about a church, where people worship together because they share the same set of beliefs.  This can’t be said about Cubs fans, who come from all walks of life, all ages and ethnicities, but remain united in their masochistic devotion to their team.  The diversity of the college classroom provides, at least theoretically, extremely fertile ground for synergy.  Where else can you talk with more people who “see it differently” than when you talk to your students?  Next time those disagreements get you down, think of synergy.  Even if thinking about synergy doesn’t help you achieve synergy, it will get your mind of those disagreeing students.  It will help you get the mental respite you need, and it will accomplish that in a healthier and less expensive fashion than, say, the vodka approach.  😉

How to Synergize Your College Class

If you want your class to be the best it can be through synergy*, here’s what you do:

  1. Tell your students that you share their goal of successfully completing the course.
  2. Explain to them that you understand that each of them is unique with their own set of wants and needs.
  3. Tell them that you need their input, their help, their guidance to adapt to their needs.
  4. Mean what you just said.
  5. Employ a variety of techniques to solicit honest open feedback from your students.
  6. Within the constraints imposed upon you by your college, and the limitations of your resources, help your students succeed.  In the process, you will help them learn, even the ones who only care about getting a C.

* That just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it.  “Be the best it can be through synergy.”


Synergy in the college classroom is about communication and cooperation.  It is about trust and respect.  It is about adaptability and flexibility.  It is about identifying a common goal and pooling resources to achieve that goal in the best possible fashion.

Your AssignmentBe the best you can be through synergy!

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 9, 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.


The 6th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors — 1 Comment

  1. Hi Paul, I really enjoyed your article and found it very helpful in forming some thoughts for a talk on synergy I am doing in a couple of weeks. I already had the title and many ideas swirling round (usually at about 4 in the morning) but ‘as a recovering engineer’ I was struggling a little to find some logical order. I am now tempted to write some ‘wise’ words to make myself sound clever and to try and boost my ego but I think I would be just repeating what you have already covered so I will just say thank you and get on with writing my talk. Andy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.