Why Effort Does Not Guarantee Success

The most difficult conversations instructors have with their students normally involve their grades. I clearly remember one technical communication student who came into my office during the week before finals and asked how he could increase his current B into an A for his cumulative GPA. Hunched over my laptop so we could see the screen, we reviewed the grade-book for thirty minutes and eventually calculated that he could not raise his grade unless I waived two penalties that he had previously received for late assignments and scored 100% on his final project. Then the student abruptly changed his argument: instead of asking how he could improve his grade, the student claimed he simply “deserved” an A because of the time and energy he had put into the course. “Well, you won’t let me have an A,” he said, “so I guess my GPA is ruined.” He left my office without another word.

Image result for sisyphus

Students and professionals often believe their success depends only upon their effort. The student who visited my office assumed he could earn an A days before the end of the semester because he could still submit one more project; then he concluded his effort mattered more than his actual performance. Carol Dweck and other theorists have demonstrated how growth mindsets, where people associate their successes and failures with their actions instead of their innate abilities, improve how students learn and apply new skills and content-knowledge, but we cannot neglect the importance of results. Educators and executives can and should reward their students and employees for effort, but effort alone does not produce successful essays, lesson-plans, software, and business plans. Grade inflation and professional complacency have made us confuse effort with success and lowered the bars for satisfactory and exemplary work.

Success arises from three separate factors:

  1. Effort: The time and commitment we devote towards our objectives.
  2. Skill: The natural talents which help us achieve our objectives.
  3. Experience: The relevant practice we can apply for our objectives.

If we define success using the academic and professional outcomes of any project, then success normally requires at least two of these factors. Consider the following example: my professor assigns a ten-page essay about the contemporary reception of The Origin of Species for my history-of-science class. If I barely spend any time on the project, cannot write clearly, and have minimal experience with academic research, then I will most likely fail the assignment. Even spending days on the project, having exceptional writing skills, or knowing the proper structure for historical essays may not fix the problem: the other two factors will outweigh the third. Without the benefit of skill or experience, my essay will improve with increased effort but probably will not receive an A.

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Should We Record K-12 Teachers While They Teach?

Three years ago, Bill Gates delivered a ten-minute TED presentation about the lack of meaningful feedback teachers receive so they can improve their instruction. Gates believes other countries outperform the United States across every subject for K-12 education because the United States has no system for the development of entry-level teachers with high-quality models, mentors, and evidence of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their own practices. Gates offered a controversial solution: recording teachers across the country and evaluating their performance based upon student outcomes and the videos themselves. While Gates conceded this proposal would cost approximately $5 billion and would probably face immediate resistance from teachers and districts, he asserted the benefits of this program would significantly outweigh its costs. You can watch the entire presentation below:

The question remains: should we record our teachers, and how should we use the information collected from these videos? Gates and his supporters list several benefits of recorded lessons: these videos can help teachers recognize the relative success of their own lectures, activities, and classroom management procedures; share effective lessons and policies with their colleagues; produce databases of the best-practices of instructors nationwide; and identify teachers who deserve rewards for their work or need additional guidance and support. Nevertheless, this proposal has some potential drawbacks. First, continual video would significantly reduce the privacy of teachers and students during class. Second, if administrators used these videos for teacher evaluations, then districts would need regulations against “cherry-picking” positive or negative results for specific instructors. Finally, schools need resources so they can not only identify the limitations of their current methods but also incorporate technology, policies, and personnel whenever shortcomings are identified. Overall, I believe we should let teachers record themselves so they can improve their own instruction but feel we should approach any mandatory video system with caution.

How to Increase Your LinkedIn Traffic

Online social networks have become increasingly significant for professionals searching for employment opportunities and accruing social capital, but the recent graduates and young professionals who need these networks the most usually receive the least traffic from potential employers. I have compiled eight recommendations for the content of LinkedIn profiles and the activities of highly-visible users that can help you increase the amount of visitors you receive and the quality of the matches between your own objectives and those of your viewers.

LinkedIn Profile

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Sabbaticals for K-12 Teachers

This editorial from Jessica Anderson, the 2016 Montana Teacher of the Year, claims K-12 teachers should request sabbaticals so they can learn new technologies and instructional methods for their classrooms. Unlike professors, who often arrange sabbaticals for their academic research, K-12 teachers usually seek professional development over the summer and during the school-year. K-12 teachers must accordingly balance between their daily classroom administration and curriculum design responsibilities and their experiments with virtual reality software (Google Expeditions), online flashcards (Study Blue), content management systems (D2L, Moodle, etc.), and practice-problem applications (NoRedInk, IXL, etc.). The limited time and resources teachers can allocate for these “side-projects” necessarily reduces their usefulness, and Anderson states teachers cannot draw their classes into the twenty-first century until K-12 educators and districts properly facilitate the long-term improvement of their employees.

Anderson also addresses the reservations many teachers have about leaving their classrooms for a year. Anderson believes teachers underestimate how much sabbaticals may improve their skill-sets and insists teachers should not feel guilty about temporarily leaving their schools with the long-term objective of returning with applications and techniques that they can share with their coworkers. Many public-school contracts already have options for sabbaticals, and Anderson feels these opportunities are underutilized because teachers cannot see themselves outside the classroom. Those who assume expert teachers always belong inside the classroom may disagree, but I side with Anderson: if one year of research, conferences, and trying new applications yields three-five years of meaningful returns for students, then the K-12 education system should not merely allow but promote sabbaticals for its instructors. I also wonder whether colleges should more-actively support the use of sabbaticals for instructional purposes instead of focusing so intently upon articles and book projects. Click the link below for more details.

Anderson K-12 Sabbaticals Editorial

Writing Professional Emails

We write and send emails more frequently than any other document, but I still receive messages from students, coworkers, and executives with unclear and unprofessional content. While we can and should write emails quickly (particularly when we receive hundreds of them every week), we should make sure our emails politely achieve their practical objectives.

1) Provide a clear subject line. Your subject line should immediately inform your reader about the contents and purposes of your message. Compare these examples: “Security Warning” vs. “Security Warning: Do Not Open Messages from Sender X.” I have occasionally received emails from students and full-time professionals without any subject line at all, and these messages not only require unnecessary time and effort from their readers but also prevent their recipients from easily processing their included information. We expect headlines from newspaper articles for the same reason; these synopses help us decide whether we should read the text and frame its content.

2) Include the expected conventions. Whenever we write emails without salutations (Dear Mr. Rochester), polite closes (sincerely, respectfully, etc.),  and signatures, our messages may feel hurried and impolite. While you can certainly remove these formalities when you correspond with your friends and family, you should always choose the most polite approach when you address your professors, managers, clients, and anyone else who directly impacts your long-term success. This default approach can and should change if your correspondents indicate that they would prefer more familiar conversations.

3) Use short paragraphs. If your email lasts more than 200 words, than you should almost always subdivide your message into paragraphs with different requests, arguments, and information. Emails, like other business documents, should let your coworkers and managers easily scan the included content without reading every word of your message. Even if some of your recipients carefully review the whole email, most of them will briefly skim the message for relevant details and action-items.

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How to Write Successful Resumes

We probably spend more time writing and revising our resumes than any other document, and I have listed ten recommendations for successful audience-centered resumes below. I hope you find this guide useful and will gladly offer advice for other technical and professional documents at your request. Without further ado:

  1. Use 20+ font for your name. Most of us remember John Lee Hancock because of the unrivaled size of his signature on the Declaration of Independence. If you use 20+ font for your name, you increase the chance that recruiters will remember you when they decide who should receive a first-round interview.
  2. Outline your main qualifications with a summary. Do not start your resumes with an objective: recruiters already know you are searching for opportunities with their companies and will expect more details from your cover letter. You should, however, summarize your qualifications and field-specific interests before you present your experience so recruiters can scan your document more efficiently.
  3. Quantify your value-addedWhenever possible, you should explain how you have contributed towards the success of your past and current employers. Compare these two examples: “Managed the quality-control division of the product-development branch.” “Managed a team of ten employees for the quality-control division of the product development branch and reduced the number of defective sprockets by 15%.” Make sure you supplement your general descriptions of your work with your achievements, which might include promotions, management and budget experience, completed projects, awards, revenue estimates, etc. You should consider how you can favorably compare yourself with an “average employee” with the same position. Continue reading

Why We Undervalue the Humanities

When we start our careers after college, we frequently have limited work experience for our expected professions and enter the workforce based upon the skills from our majors. Computer scientists advertise their expertise with CSS, Python, and HTML, biologists list their applicable lab techniques (gel electrophoresis, chromatography, etc.), and students from the humanities stress their extensive practice with research, written communication, and analysis. Despite the value of these humanities skills for private and public institutions, entry-level job applicants without field-specific knowledge cannot always compete with their more technically-inclined counterparts. Why do executives simultaneously insist higher-level problem-solving drives success and still resist hiring soft-skill specialists from English, History, and Philosophy?

Professionals from the humanities face two related problems: almost everyone within the modern workforce can hypothetically research, write, and analyze problems and solutions, and these skills resist quantification. Technical resumes outline general “tiers” between levels of expertise: the words “proficiency,” “fluency,” “competency,” and “familiarity” all mark different thresholds of mastery. Unless employers require portfolios from their applicants, which causes more problems for recent graduates who must either submit academic projects for potential employers or develop portfolios from scratch, companies cannot straightforwardly evaluate soft skills. Most recruiters do not respond favorably when applicants differentiate themselves with their “expert” written and spoken communication skills without extensive evidence that these skills have and will improve the bottom-lines of their companies. Continue reading