July 13th, 2011

How to Win Students and Influence Learning


An intense couple of days at this year’s Teaching Professor Conference inspired me to revamp my course, and I’m starting at the very beginning. My goal is to set the perfect tone to inspire and engage as soon as students walk through my door. I’m taking the Dale Carnegie approach to people and applying that to the classroom. “There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything,” Carnegie writes. “Just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”

I could make students want to work hard by threatening them with bad grades, damaging the tone of the course, or I could envision what would positively motivate me if I were the student. What would entice me to try my very best? What would convince me that this rigorous class is worthy of my valuable time and effort?

We traditionally give students a laundry list of learning objectives as their reward for over one hundred hours of hard work, but the typical student in a core mathematics course doesn’t care about actually learning statistics, unfortunately. I need something better, more appealing. Why are students coming through my door? What is their end goal? Here is what I came up with, written from a student’s perspective.

What can this course do for me, the student? This course can give me:

  1. At least two items for my job-seeking portfolio – gorgeous mind maps and a comprehensive statistical research project – demonstrating to employers my work ethic and the quality of my work.
  2. Life-long learning and study skills I can apply continually to get the best grades, land top jobs, and move quickly up the ladder.
  3. Opportunities for developing leadership and interpersonal skills in a team environment, winning the heart of almost any employer.
  4. Practical experience with computer-based technologies, increasingly essential for me to compete in today’s marketplace
  5. Problem-solving and critical thinking abilities that employers consider among the most important skills needed to succeed in the workplace.
  6. An understanding of statistics and research that will allow me to critically assess and understand the world of data around me.

Even though my course is challenging, I can win students over, convincing them the work is worthwhile, by selling the prize of employability: Fostering 11 of the top 15 skills employers reported as very important — skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, self-direction, written and oral communication — students become much more employable through this one single course.

Ellen Smyth is an instructor in the Mathematics Department at Austin Peay State University at Fort Campbell.

Carnegie, Dale (1936), How to Win Friends and Influence People, Pocket Books.

Evans, Lauri (Spring 2011), Student-drawn mind maps for the first half of my statistics course.

Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce (September 2006), pg. 9, The Conference Board, Inc., the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce (September 2006), pg. 42.

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  • Tevia

    Great article! I've listened to the audio book "How to win friends and influence people" and love the way it's been applied to T&L here. I recently went to a seminar by Dr. John Demartini, where he discussed the importance of communicating with students by using their value systems (rather than our own). This means getting to know what interests them, and what they want out of the experience, and adapting our message to that. Fairly similar outlook, and a great way to approach teaching and learning.

  • Rui Jesus

    Great, great article! Congratulations for making such a simple adaptation of Carnegie's advices.

  • karen Hamick

    However, in nursing we have accrediting bodies such as National League of Nursing and AACN American Association of Colleges of Nursing that will not approve of programs without specific measurable objectives that address their specific criteria for patient and health care.

    • Ellen Smyth

      I would recommend having specific course objectives, as well as these broader benefits of the course. I do. Specific course objectives are just as important as what the course can do for students professionally.

  • judy

    I have a 12 year old grandson that is inseven grade his school is teaching a dale Carnegie math course,he is having a hard time understanding the math work how can I help him? thank you. JH

  • Ellen Smyth

    A Dale Carnegie math course? How interesting, Judy. I'm not sure exactly what a Dale Carnegie math course would look like, but you can get some wonderful online help in 7th grade mathematics from Khan Academy videos and online exercises, https://www.khanacademy.org/, and from the WatchKnowLearn videos and resources, http://www.watchknowlearn.org/default.aspx. I hope these are helpful.