The Coach Approach . . . . a winning game plan.

Welcome to my pedagogical journey . . . . my journey ends with a " game-changing " pedagogical strategy that you will not find in any text book . . . . but here's how it began. I am Eddie Brown (Ph.D. Organic Chemistry) founder of Chem21Labs (2005) and Chemistry Professor at Lee University (1990-2021) in Cleveland Tennessee USA. I graduated from Lee University, earned my Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee and returned to Lee University (1990) where I taught General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry and their associated labs. The first 2 - 3 years I was "honing my craft." The next 10 years were spent trying to find ways to get more of my students to engage in the material and to perform at higher levels academically. The workshops at the university and other professional meetings provided advise and some terrific-sounding slogans . . . .

  • Be the "sage on the stage" to motivationally "wow" them.
  • Be the "guide by the side" to motivate them to "take this journey" with me.
  • Students "don't care how much you know until they know how much you care".
  • "Great teachers inspire."
  • "Attend campus events / intramural games of your students and they will invest more in 'your class'."

To the best of my ability, I tried all the suggestions . . . . but nothing produced the results I wanted. Now, to be fair,  I'm not an "influencer"  . . . . I'm a chemistry teacher. It made me feel better about the situation when other teachers suggested that 25% of students will "get it" no matter what you do and 25% of students will "not get it" no matter what you do . . . . so teach to the middle 50%. Still others said that you can either go "a mile wide and an inch deep" or "an inch wide and a mile deep." My "acceptance" of this academic reality was short-lived . . . . I stubbornly wanted my students' learning to be " a mile wide and a mile deep ." I decided "there had to be a better way."

In thinking about the slogans above, I realized all the focus was on the teacher . . . . but most of the teachers I know have a mastery of the course content (sage), are willing to help (guide), and truly care about their students. However, it seems that a fundamental flaw in the delivery of education is the many roles played by the teacher. At times they are

  1. the "coach" . . . . helpful, caring, wanting their players to succeed
  2. the "referee" . . . . throwing the flag and assessing penalties
  3. the "scout" . . . . deciding whether the player will play at the next level

And my favorite are the "hostage takers" (no athletic equivalent) . . . . they "kidnap" grades (the class average is a 49) and then have the students come by their office and beg for the release of some of their grade. But we will leave that and the associated "Stockholm syndrome" for another time.

I believe John Wooden said it best for athletics . . . "the coach is first of all a teacher . . . . for education, the reverse is true . . . "the teacher is first of all a coach."

Coach, referee, or scout . . . . which role do you most enjoy?

If you said "coach", keep reading to see how you can be 99% coach (a 99% enjoyable experience), have an amazing teaching career, and develop the best "academic version" of your students - a WIN WIN WIN!

First, let's explore the question . . .  what is education ?

Our definition is elemental . . . education is the academic movement of a novice toward the expert level. So "A" is transitioning to "B". This raises the question what can "B" do? While "B" the expert may possess other talents, let's focus on the four below:

  1. experts can quickly and accurately answer thousands of fact-based questions in their discipline.
  2. experts can describe and explain a complicated series of steps used to reach higher levels of thought . . . . let's call it "complex thinking."
  3. experts maintain both sets of information in long-term memory.
  4. experts practice "critical thinking" - an activity where information (new or old) is run through a "for loop" in an effort to suggest connections between information. The connections may already be known (i.e. the connection is part of another person's schema that is in print, audio or video) and simply needs to be located and assimilated into your own schema . . . or, more investigation and research are needed to determine if two items are "connected" and in what ways.

It seems that the first three "talents" require substantial  academic sweat  and the last is a "state of questioning" - an activity that we should encourage once the student's "for loop" has hundreds (maybe thousands) of items stored in the database.

Here's what you've been awaiting . . . . the " coach approach " . . . . let's "coach" the novice in developing the first three expert-level talents and then inspire them to critically think more and more as their proficiency increases. Inform the students of the "drills" they will do this semester, but reassure them that you are there to coach them each step of the way.

  1.  Timed-Repetitive Quizzes (TRQs)  are a low-stakes, high-reward drill that develops Talent 1. You (the expert) decide how much of your chemical information should be transferred to your students after a year of chemistry. The effectiveness of this "drill and practice" is that if students keep taking quizzes, they will earn all the points possible. Now, to ensure students take this activity seriously, TRQ drills should be 20% of the course grade . . . if you don't "come to practice," you won't do well on the team. While 20% sounds like a lot, you must realize that students in April will still be completing TRQs first introduced in August so that the knowledge is maintained (Talent 3) in long-term memory. Students spend an average of 2 hours per week on TRQ drills. A thorough description and explanation of TRQs is found here.
  2.  Tutorials  are interactive assignments that help students navigate a series of complicated steps. After the TRQ "conditioning," your players are ready to "learn a play." Repeated assignment of a Tutorial puts the "play" in long-term memory. Full-credit is awarded once the student successfully completes the steps - students only have to "keep trying." Students spend ~1 hour per week learning "new" plays and rehearsing "old" plays. More about Tutorials here
  3.  Homework and Exams  - this is where coaches become scouts and referees . . . . and where students become frustrated. When a teacher administers and grades a test, they become the referee of a game. The reality is that players do not "like" referees - "they call fouls (on me) that weren't fouls and didn't call the fouls against me" . . . . they rarely "get it right" . . . . "they are out to get me". After the game, the team wants to eat someplace with their coach, not the referee. Scouts are even worse - a scout may be looking for 1 player with specific skills to join his team. Twenty quality players are scouted and 19 go home as "losers" (not a label, simply a self-reported sentiment). Teachers are "scouts" when one of their goals is to "weed out" the class and tell 19/20 that they are not going to play at the next level or next year. Teachers should let the admissions tests (MCAT, DAT, GRE, PCAT, etc.) and admissions boards be the "scouts" . . . . we need to "stay in our lane."

    We have to give quizzes and exams, right?

    That's Correct . . . . but here's the idling "self-talk" and attitudes we want to remove from the players:
    • Self-talk: "Coach gave a 'hard test'" . . . Attitude: "Coach knew our capabilities and intentionally wanted us to fail".
    • Self-talk: "Coach got the last two question 'out of left field'" . . . Attitude: "Coach didn't prepare us in that area - she just wanted to take off points."
    • Self-talk: "Coach never covered that" . . . Attitude: "Coach KNEW this was part of the game and still didn't prepare us for it."
    • Fact: "The class average was 49 " . . . Attitude: "Coach didn't prepare anyone for the game . . . . my Coach isn't very good."
    • Self-talk: "I studied the wrong things" . . . Attitude: "Coach didn't point me in the right direction during practice."
    • Self-talk: "If I studied 5 more hours, I could not have improved" . . . Attitude: "I'm better at tennis, I'm going to switch majors (and coaches)."

    How do we remove this harmful self-talk and motivate students to work hard? Make the game a "skills test". This is actually a coach's dream . . . . the coaching staff anticipated every scenaio, prepared drills to dominate the situation and then the players executed the game plan flawlessly . . . . incidentally, in this scenario, the players are convinced that their coach is a genius and will work even harder for the next game.

    So be a genius and coach your players through all the skills you want them to master and then test them to see if they have mastered them. To be fair, many of us are doing this, but students don't "KNOW IT". I've had students say "Question 3 was a curve ball" - the truth is I worked Question 3 (the exact question) during lecture and it was in their homework. So, how do we make sure students "KNOW" what is covered on the skills test?

    This is it, are you ready?

    The exam will only contain skills from a "skills list". The "skills list" is the assigned homework questions. For General Chemistry, 50 questions per chapter is appropriate . . . for Organic Chemistry, 70 questions. So, an Organic exam over 4 chapters will come from a 280-question homework pool. The exam will contain 15 - 20 questions. When I first implemented this, 80% of the exam questions came from the homework pool and the class results were "underwhelming". The results remained "underwhelming" at 90%. I assume the 80% and 90% had the effect of changing some of the negative self-talk into "if I studied more, it would not help because Coach is going to put questions on the exam I can't answer and I'm am condemned to getting a B or C in this class." Can't you feel the antagonistic loathing players have for the "referee / scout" persona? They assume the absolute worse motivations and actions. Well, things did change when 100% of the exam questions came from the homework. The loudest voice in the players head is saying "Coach wants me to do a lot of hard work and he seems very willing to help me." Now, a student need only answer the question "Will I work hard?" If the answer is "yes", they will also learn that

    "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." (Coach Tim Notke)

    This approach has two outstanding consequences for your team:
    • when students do "get help", the end result is not the answer, but the ability to get to the answer on the skills test.
    • since students are now encouraged to work together, you have just "Chegg-proofed" your class and saved your students money. Students helping students is the true Dream Team.
    "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle." (James Keller)

    "The strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each member is the team." (Phil Jackson)

  4.  Lab Report  - the final area needing a new game plan. At Chem21Labs, labs are "our thing". We love the way labs add sight, smell and sound connections to the chemistry schema. To totally eliminate the idea of "I just need the answer, I will learn it later", Coach should encourage students to work together on learning "how" to perform the lab calculations and then have a skills test at the beginning of the next lab period. Our online lab submission program can deliver and grade the lab report AND we can create the skills test using randomized lab data. Again, to communicate its importance to students, we suggest that this in-class and monitored skills test is 20 - 30% of the lab's grade.

Does the coach approach work . . . . the research says yes (see below), but you can answer this question for yourself. If your department head "coached" you for tenure but  intentionally ommitted  some drills "to see how you performed" . . . . and then "mounted a lackluster support of you for tenure" . . . . what are you likely to feel about the process and about your department head?

Does "conflicted" describe it . . . . you may appreciate the coaching, but not the refereeing and scouting. The fact that all these persona's are in the same person should cause emotional incongruence.

Want to go to lunch with your "former" department head?

A more detailed account of the Organic ACS Exam Scores from 1990-2017 can be found here. To summarize . . . .

  • 1990-2005 ACS class results: 41 percentile . . . . . 2005-2017 ACS class results: 59.4 percentile . . . . ACS class results increased by 18.4 percentile in the test classes.
  • The number of A/A- increased from 19.4% (1990-2005) to 44.0% (2005-2017) in the test classes.
  • Attrition in the 2nd semester Organic Chemistry class went from 15% (1990-2005) to 0.8% (2005-2017) in the test classes.

It requires a lot of academic sweat, but it is worth it for both coach and player.