Tag Archives: professional

Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.

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What To Do After the Reviews Arrive

Over the past decades, I have responded to more than 100 revise and resubmit requests from editors, served about 10 years as Associate Editor of the Administrative Science Quarterly, and reviewed hundreds of papers for dozens of journals. Closer to home, I’ve had the experience in the past year of responding to several tough R&R requests, and thus I decided to see whether I had learned enough to share some general tips with other authors. So, here are a few, with no claim to originality on any of them.

Ryōan-ji Temple

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Only 14 of the 15 rocks are visible from all vantage points

First, just wait. After you finish reading the editor’s letter and the reviews, you might feel the need to “do something.” My advice? Don’t! Read the letters a couple of times to make sure you’ve noticed everything and haven’t spent more time on the negative then the positive reviews. Then, put them aside and just think about them for a day or two. Or longer.

Second, moderate your emotions. It is natural to feel annoyed, irritated, and even angry about a letter that points out the flaws in your work. However, letting your anger get the best of you will lead to unprofessional behavior which you will later regret. Given that the letter is a revise and resubmit request, there will be sentences in the reviews that say positive things about your work. Relish them and then move on. Similarly, there will be sentences in the reviews that lead you to question the intelligence and motives of the reviewers. Such thoughts are not helpful. They block rational thinking about the strategic course of action you need to take.

Third, thank the editor. The letter probably asks you to indicate to the Journal whether you plan to resubmit and if so, by what date. I never turn down such invitations. Even if the letter says something like “meeting the reviewers’ comments will require major changes in the manuscript,” the fact that the editor thinks you have a chance is reason for celebration. So, don’t complain in the message you send back to the Journal; just tell them that you’re grateful for the opportunity to revise the manuscript and you will be returning it within 30, 60, or 90 days, or whatever time frame it is that you’ve been given. Editing is mostly a thankless job — give the editor a break.

Fourth, do not send the manuscript unchanged to another journal! Occasionally I hear friends and colleagues tell me that the effort to meet the revision requests is not worth it and they’re just giving up and sending the paper to another journal. That’s a big mistake. Why? First, for most journals, far less than half of the authors submitting papers are given opportunities for revision. Somebody likes your work. Second, the odds of an acceptance skyrocket for most journals, once the paper has been given an R&R. For some journals, the odds approach 50% that a revision will be accepted. Whatever the number, if you cared enough about the Journal’s reputation to submit to it in the first place, you’ve now got a much better opportunity to publish in it and so you shouldn’t turn it down. Third, and perhaps most important, it is quite likely that at least one of the reviewers who told the editor that the paper needed work will be a reviewer for a subsequent journal to which you send the paper. Nothing angers a reviewer more than to learn that all the work put into a review has been ignored by an author who has chosen to send the unchanged paper elsewhere. Sending the paper elsewhere without revising it is likely to elicit a strong rejection or at least one really strong negative review!

Fifth, consider the possibility that the reviewers were right. Lots of research in cognitive neuroscience tells us that people consistently overestimate the value of something they have produced, as well as being wildly overconfident that their work is above average. Don’t be one of those people. Take the reviews to a colleague and, without biasing their response with a negative cue, ask them to tell you what they think of the reviews. You will be surprised at the response. Although your colleagues can put themselves in your shoes as a spurned author, they probably have had much more experience as a reviewer than as an author (judging by the average colleague’s CV), and so their sympathies are quite likely to lie with the reviewers. Listen to what they have to tell you.

Sixth, make a plan. Every revise and resubmit editor’s letter asks an author to not only revise the manuscript but to include a document that indicates how each of the comments made by the reviewers was dealt with. You can get a head start on that document by using the reviews to create a plan for revision. First, fit the plan to the comments. If the points in the reviews aren’t already numbered, number them. Keep track of which reviewer said what by giving each reviewer a letter, e.g. A, B, and C. Second, indicate whether you accept the criticism and can do something about it (adding literature, clarifying language, conducting new analyses, and so forth) or you can’t. If you can’t do something about it, indicate why. Third, clearly indicate which of the comments will require moving words around (theories, concepts, models, etc.) versus which will require new analyses. Externalizing your thoughts in this way will show you whether you truly understand what the editor is asking you to do. (You can write back and asked for clarification of murky points.) It also gives you a sense of the magnitude of the effort required to meet the comments. This document will be both a plan for revising the manuscript and the template for the letter you will write to the editor.

Seventh, don’t lengthen the text. Almost all papers that are submitted are close to or over the ideal word limit set by a journal. Although you may claim that you can’t deal with the reviewers’ comments without adding more words to the text, that is surely not true. Unless you had hired a professional editor before submitting the paper, there are many places in the text where you will find redundancies, unnecessary digressions, and so forth. Use the revision opportunity to shorten the text, or at least to ensure that it is no longer than the original submitted.

Eighth, be generous. Avoid gratuitous insults to the editor or reviewers in the letter you of explanation write. Although it is tempting to claim to an editor that the reviewers misunderstood your manuscript because they’re out of touch with the literature or have inferior reading skills, you’ll gain no profit by doing so. Avoid effusive praise, but do thank the reviewers when they genuinely pointed out something that you had missed. In simple declarative prose, explain to the editor and the reviewers how you understood each of their points, how you responded to it, or why you were not able to.

If you follow these tips, I cannot guarantee you that your resubmitted manuscript will be accepted. However, I can guarantee that your professional reputation will emerge intact and you’ll live to fight another day. You will also feel better about the process.

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What Sustains a Belief in Success Among the Unsuccessful?

I’ve been haunted by the question of what sustains belief in success among the unsuccessful ever since I read Reinhard Bendix’ magisterial book, Work and Authority in Industry. Bendix wrote about the economic ideology that kept millions of people in England, the United States, and other Western capitalist societies working in arduous and poorly paying jobs, apparently in the belief that someday, sooner or later, their hard work would be rewarded. Bendix’s view was that this ideology enabled developing capitalist societies to survive in spite of the hardships experienced by their working classes and the demonstrable economic inequality produced by economic growth.

A similar question occurred to me a few days ago after I finished a fruitless 6 hours of fly fishing at a local Lake. Along with the other members of my small fishing group, I had spent the day in bitterly cold weather, casting into a howling wind, with almost nothing to show for it by way of trout landed. This was not an atypical day, except for the cold, as we often spend an entire day fly fishing without catching more than a handful of fish. Nonetheless, every week, on our appointed day, we trek back to the lake and try it again.

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

On the way home from the lake, I found myself thinking about the similarities between my fly fishing experience and that of underemployed members of the creative professions that I’ve been studying. Actors, musicians, authors, dancers, filmmakers and others often spend years without finding steady employment in their profession, sustaining themselves by working in other jobs that may have little or no connection to their professional identity. For example, at the beginning of 2012 report by Actor’s Equity Association said that the average unemployment rate for actors was around 90%.

One of my friends asked if I would accept an analogy between the experience of athletes, who often experience “failures” through losses in competition and infrequently-employed creative artistic professionals. I said no, because the context for athletic failures is quite different. Athletes, whether amateur or professional, are competing within a context where there are rules that govern their actions: there is little uncertainty about the need to experience failure. Every athletic contest has a winner and a loser, determined by rules that were set a priori. The very nature of athletic competition mandates that someone will lose in every game.

By contrast, fly fishermen and creative professionals are operating in a highly uncertain context. There are well-established and standardized procedures for acquiring the skills needed to potentially do well as an angler or artist, but for any given performance, whether it will be a “success” or “failure” is highly uncertain.

Additionally, many products produced by creative professionals either fail to get distributed or lose money when they are distributed. Paul Hirsch pointed to the overproduction of many cultural products, such as films, records and CDs, books, and plays, resulting in a large number never reaching their intended audiences. American playwrights, for example, consider themselves fortunate if their new plays are produced for a 2nd or 3rd time, after their premier. Many are produced once and never appear in a theater again.

So, in the face of such long odds, what sustains a belief in success among these unsuccessful creative professionals? As I drove home, I pondered the similarities between these artists and fly fishermen. Admittedly, initially it seemed a bit of a stretch, but then several principles came to mind. 1st, as we know from behavioral psychology, intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful force in sustaining a behavior. Indeed, intermittent reinforcement – – receiving reinforcement on an unpredictable schedule – – is more powerful than receiving reinforcement consistently after every trial. For anglers, all it takes is a few successful catches in a day to create the feeling that the day has been a success. Perhaps for artists, the same thing holds?

2nd, and probably more important, anglers, especially fly fishermen, are often part of a very resilient community that gives them a very strong sense of shared fate with other anglers. Fly fishermen have magazines, blogs, videos, television programs, voluntary associations, and other mechanisms that enable communication with others who share a passion in fly fishing. I believe the same is true of the creative professions. Having a strong sense of social identity, in which someone perceives their identity as tied to that of a larger community of like-minded people, could sustain a person through difficult times.

3rd, if someone has experienced powerful socialization pressures such that their personal identity is bound up with their occupational identity, they may tolerate an enormous amount of misery before abandoning that identity. Thus, someone who strongly identifies with their artistic craft may continue to hold onto that belief, regardless of having few opportunities to demonstrate their prowess. Lena and Lindemann used data from a very large survey of individuals who had pursued an arts degree in the United States to investigate the question of artistic identity, noting that many workers are defined themselves as artists did not hold artistic jobs. They focused on the very large group that said they had worked in an occupation associated with the arts but who did not indicate that they identified as a professional artist. However, what caught my eye in the survey was a much smaller number of people who said they either currently or at one time had worked as a professional artist but then indicated in another question that they had never worked in an occupation associated with the arts. This small group of people apparently had sustained a sense of being an artistic professional while never having an opportunity to work in an occupation associated with the arts.

I would love to know more about these “artists” – – were they able to publish, record, perform, or otherwise display their talents just often enough to maintain a belief that someday they would “make it big”? Were they member of local communities of creative professionals who reinforce one another’s beliefs that they were just going through a temporary bad patch and success was just around the corner?