Dear Student, Do the Work

Yesterday I shared three keys for designing effective homework:

  1. Interest: students need to find the material itself interesting
  2. Relevance: students need to believe that the activity will cause them to learn the material
  3. Appropriate Level of Challenge: students need to be stretched, not broken

When an assignment fails in one of these areas, students disengage. Some will skip the assignment, many put in a lousy effort, while others will copy the answers.

Today I’m talking to the students: if your professor isn’t designing homework that hits these keys, what can you do?

Do them for Yourself

Any time you’re tempted to skimp on your homework efforts, ask yourself which of these issues it is, and fix it yourself.

Not interested in the subject?

Find ways to get interested: read articles, browse websites of companies that operate in that area, search the web for videos and blogs related to keywords from the chapter. Form a study group and argue about it.

Not sure if the assignment is relevant?

Ask the professor what the educational purpose is. Compare your assignment to others. Read a blog or two about teaching and learning. Try to understand the mechanics of teaching and you’ll grow as an independent learner.

Not sure if the challenge is appropriate?

If you’re stuck, work an easier question first. Yes, even if it wasn’t assigned. Pick a few questions from the beginning of the homework section in your text. Work an example or two from the chapter before reading the solution. Turn them in with the rest of your work to help show the professor what you needed to learn effectively. Believe it or not, gaining traction by solving a few easy questions first might reduce the overall time you spend on your homework. It will certainly drop the frustration and increase the learning!

Don’t let bad Homework ruin a class!

I get it. You’re paying good money to learn content from excellent teachers. Sometimes you get an instructor who isn’t very effective at meeting your learning needs. You can check out and learn nothing, or you can stop romanticizing about how the world should be and live in the one that is.

Life is yours to co-create, not consume. You’re in the business of making your life incredible

Dear Prof., Your Homework Stinks

Homework. Many students hate it. Many have only one goal: get it done as quickly as possible because they’d rather do anything else with their time.

And I don’t blame them.

Today, for the first time in over a year, I am writing critically about faculty instead of students. Tomorrow will be the other half of this coin. Students, you’re not off the hook.

Bad Homework

Unfortunately, many faculty seem to have no idea how to design effective homework (I was/am guilty). A common approach is to scan through the textbook and pick exercises they wish their students could complete. That’s one method for designing an exam (assessment of learning), but not a way to design a new acquisition experience.

Homework isn’t supposed to be an open-book take home exam. It’s supposed to be a learning experience.

Three Keys to Creating Effective Homework:

  • Students must be Interested the topic
  • Students must see the Relevance of the assignment to their learning
  • Students must experience the Appropriate Level of Challenge


We often forget that it’s rare for someone to be so interested in a topic that they study it for years, earn a PhD in it, and take up a career teaching it. Most people in your class haven’t found that passion yet! Faculty: one of your jobs is that of a salesperson. Sell your subject by taking students on the journey that helped you find your fire! Bullet points don’t work here…


We all hate busywork. We’ve all done plenty of it. If your students don’t see how the activity you’re asking them to engage in will actually translate to a deeper understanding of the subject, then it will feel like busywork. As strange as this may sound, faculty are in the business of teaching their students how to teach. By telling the students the educational reason behind a particular activity, you earn their buy in and show them how to become effective lifelong learners.

Appropriate Level of Challenge.

We want students to go through the experience of engaging with this topic that they don’t understand. We want them to explore it. We want then to struggle with it until they don’t struggle with it anymore.

If we want students to engage, then the challenge must be of appropriate difficulty. The student needs to be stretched, but not snapped. One counterintuitive way to do this is to add more problems: easy and medium difficulty questions. As the students work the problem set, they gain confidence by being incrementally stretched.

Since ADDING questions to my homework sets, the completion rate jumped from less than 30% to over 85%!

Bad Response.

Unfortunately, many faculty don’t realize the true issues with their assignments, and so they jump to the conclusion that their students are “lazy” or “unmotivated.” This only expands the gulf in your classroom. Students and faculty resort to tactics rather than connection.

Faculty: if students aren’t doing well or aren’t engaging, ask what you can do better. Don’t escalate by going on the offensive and placing all of the blame on your students. When we play blame games, no one comes out ahead.

Students: tomorrow I’ll be talking about the other half of this: the responsibility students own. You’re not off the hook!

Homework: Learning Tool or Academic Arms Race?

During my freshmen and sophomore years, I had one goal for my homework: get it done in as short a time as possible. Why? Because I would rather be doing anything else!

I know I am not alone.

I meet very few students who are actually excited about their homework. They’re not sure WHY they hate homework so much, but they’re sure they do.

Goal: get it done with a little time/energy possible

The interesting thing about goals is that they drive our behavior. If the goal is “to be done as soon as possible,” then one wouldn’t think twice about being the weakest link in a study group (dare I say hangers-on?) or even resorting to copying work from people, solution manuals, or the internet.

And then the faculty get involved.

We see a lot of homework that looks “similar.” We realize that the students aren’t learning from the homework (because they don’t score well on quizzes and exams) and instantly jump to words like”lazy” and “unmotivated.” We up the ante by grading harder and implementing systems whose primary goal is to stop students from cheating.

So, students are looking for crafty ways to trick the faculty into believing they’ve done their homework, and faculty are looking for crafty ways to strong-arm students into doing their homework.

Welcome to the arms race, faculty:

  • scan text to catch plagiarism, sending the message that students can’t be trusted
  • use automated systems to give every student different problems, isolating learners from one of the most valuable resources at a university (the learning community)
  • ramp up grading with tricks like picking random questions to review in detail, causing students to play guessing games while they study

Welcome to the arms race, students:

  • pay people to write unique papers for them so that they can’t be found using plagiarism software
  • subscribe to services which allow them to scan problems and automatically return solutions
  • divide and conquer: everyone in the group works one problem on a homework set and shared the solutions

Yep. BROKE college students would rather pay extra than do homework. What’s that say about their perception of the value of the assignments!?

Arms race:

when we fail to understand each other, and so we try to create ways of beating each other while sidestepping the real issue. The blame lies on both sides, and this week I am going to explore what we might do about it.

Here’s a preview: the goal of college is to learn, the goal of homework is to offer learning experiences. Faculty need to create assignments that actually foster learning, and students need to actually engage.

What’s On Your Mind?

I’m writing this post on a Friday (Happy Friday!). Here’s my question for you:

What’s on your todo list that will nag at you all weekend if you don’t get it done?

List the unresolved tasks that are stressing you out. Next question:

Does this list match your original plan for what you were going to accomplish today?

For many of us (including me), all too often the answer is “no.”

It’s amazing, isn’t it? We have a list of open loops occupying our attentions, stressing us out. Yet these aren’t the things we plan to actually close today!

This post came to me because I have 3 things (probably 2 hours of work) that are causing me some stress, and none of them appear on my todo list today. Why? Because I have too many other things that I “HAVE to do.”

The antidote:

Realize that if the list of things that matters most to you isn’t what you’re planning on working on today, then you’re living today according to someone else’s agenda.

  1. Maybe you should figure out who.
  2. Can you find things on today’s original list that wouldn’t eat your brain this weekend if you put them off?
  3. If yes, replace them with the things that matter most to you.
  4. If no, start thinking about longer-term changes you can make to your list of commitments, because you’re committed to things that don’t matter MOST to you.

Woah. Pretty practical today.

I want you to have an amazing, playful, restful weekend. I want you to come back on Monday PSYCHED for the week ahead, not paying the penalty for leaving this week unresolved. Do the right things today!

Writer’s Block

That’s what I have today. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have so many half-baked ideas floating around in my head. But that much is a daily reality for me. For some reason, today, I am struggling with latching on to one idea and running with it.

When I face writer’s block I immediately think of Seth Godwin’s piece on “Talker’s Block.” He points out that we don’t seem to face talker’s block and if understood why, we could find the key to overcoming writer’s block as well.

Why don’t we face “Talker’s Block”?

  1. We talk many times every day
  2. We talk in public without much fear of what others will think

And so we overcome writer’s block by

  1. Writing often
  2. Writing in public

And for both writing and talking, we should be willing to do it poorly until we become good at it and can do it well. I’m not sure how good I am at either (ok that’s modesty, I actually think I am quite good at both), but I do try to talk and write in public every day.

I’m on board! But today, I have no topic! There’s a point to this: I am purposefully posting today, even though I am intimidated by the thought that this won’t be perfect.

Why? Because when I tell people about the importance of building a personal brand via blogging and relationships on social media, the NUMBER 1 reason they cite to avoid it is fear of “posting something that makes them look bad. Once it’s posted, it’s out there forever for someone to find and it could stop me from getting a job.”

Or it could be the reason you DO get a job…

I know that you’ve been measured and judged for your entire life. Things like grades are set up to compare you to “perfect.” Goal: 100%. If you didn’t achieve it, you’ve made mistakes and are less than perfect. Whatever.

Here’s the truth (and the point behind this post):

Present is better than perfect.

Don’t wait until everything is just right. While you’re hiding and “getting ready,” people are out there getting their hands messy, making an impact, learning how to do things better. Don’t get left behind!

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Have you ever overheard a conversation that you just couldn’t tune out? Maybe you were on a date, and no matter how good of a time you were having, you just HAD to hear the rest of the loud-talker’s work story from the next table. Or maybe you were on a train. Sometimes, unimportant noise catches our attention and won’t let go.

I spend a lot of my life wearing noise canceling headphones (real ones, not a metaphor).

Now for the metaphor

Unfortunately, we don’t have the technology to filter out distracting thoughts and worries. No noise cancelling headphones for the brain. But we do have an amazing ability that Arno Ilgner calls The Observer.

Have you ever thought about thinking? That’s The Observer. Have you ever stepped back and watched yourself? The Observer again. It’s a mental perspective that lets you step outside of yourself and watch what you’re doing. A different kind of awareness.

When we’re stressed, we tend to act.

I have a psychologist friend who showed me a study that demonstrated how stress actually reduces our intelligence. The greater the stress, the louder your amygdala (aka Lizard Brain) starts shouting. And usually it’s actions taken in moments like these that we regret.

Don’t act. Observe.

Lately, when I find myself stressed, I stop moving. I stop doing. I try to move to The Observer viewpoint and I watch my brain for a while. I want to know WHY I am stressed. I want to know if this thing really matters. I want to know what outcome I need to eliminate my concerns.

90% of the time I come to the conclusion that this thing, which felt like a crisis just moments ago, doesn’t matter at all. No outcome is better than the other, and I can just let it go.

Remember Boredom

When was the last time you were bored? I don’t mean “playing on your phone instead of paying attention,” I mean B-O-R-E-D. Not very long ago, the world forced boredom on us regularly. Now, I can’t remember the last time I was in a situation in which I couldn’t pull out my phone and start doing something else.

It’s not all upside

Having a phone in the waiting room at the dentists office may feel preferable to reading Highlights Magazine, but what if we’re losing something? What if in those moments of boredom, we were actually working things out for ourselves?

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had really just sat and thought about… well, anything. Sure, I sit down to write or create lectures or plan my day, but uninterrupted pondering? Hm.

I took a road trip.

I headed down to North Carolina for a few days of rock climbing with my brother-in-law. I found myself alone in the car for about 7 hours each way. Armed with dozens of podcasts, I was bound to catch up on some learning.

I made it 20 minutes before I realized just how quiet it was. Yes, there was road noise. But nothing else. No people to talk to, baby to keep an eye on, no email to read. In a moment of inspiration I decided that I would complete the remainder of the trip, about 14 hours total, in silence.


That’s the only word for it. I played out conversations. I gave speeches. I sat and argued with myself. I discovered a new element (ok, kidding). I came back with an entirely new mindset for my job as a professor, and for the things I want to do with Intentional Academy.

I also realized that my life used to feel this clear on a regular basis. I attributed the issue to “growing up,” now I have big-boy problems to deal with. The truth is that I am just more distracted.

I think those 15-minute bouts of boredom in waiting rooms are times we figure life out. My new plan is to schedule 15 minutes of daily wall staring.

How do you gain clarity? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Urgent v Important

Yesterday I talked about how I hide out once a week: I work remotely to avoid distraction so that I can focus on my most important tasks. Today I would like to unpack this for you even more.

We have trained ourselves to respond to urgency, regardless of importance.

Imagine being in class and you feel your phone buzz. Do you check it? Does it gnaw at you whether you check it or not?

Maybe instead of being in class, it’s the same situation while you’re having dinner with our family. You spent all day looking forward to being back together, and then DING.

The problem is that just because it’s happening right now, doesn’t mean it’s important.

Maybe someone liked your status update. Maybe it’s a joke text message. Or someone trying to grab dinner later.

When you let the urgent-but-unimportant things steal your attention, you multiply the time it takes to get anything meaningful done. It’s time to retrain our brains to focus on what really matters!


What’s the most important thing you do? If you had to had to pick just one activity, what would it be? I have an answer for each of the major roles I play (husband, dad, professor…)

The most important thing I do as a professor is make concepts relatable to someone who’s never seen them before (I’m still working on the wording here). If I’m not doing that, then all of the other things that I do wouldn’t have a purpose. I wouldn’t meet with students for help sessions, or grad homework, or attend meetings, or mentor, or create assignments, or give exams, or adjust grades, or process deadline extension requests…

If I don’t teach, the other administrative activities don’t matter.

Yet the hardest thing for me to do is

find time to make concepts relatable to someone who’s never seen them before! All of those other tasks seem to fill my days. Why?

  1. They are smaller time commitments, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of working on 5-minutes tasks all day. It feels like progress.
  2. They are easier. I don’t need to dig deep and focus fully to do the administrative work.
  3. They nag. When your email is blowing up and there’s a line down the hall from your office door, you want to make it go away.
  4. I’m a people pleaser by nature. I thrive off of feeling like I helped someone. But the admin work gives only shallow help and a shallow reward.
  5. They represent open loops. Little things that must be done, and leave a feeling of stress until they are.

The result is that it can be hard to find time to prep for class, which is the most important thing I do. No one else can do it for me and it cannot wait. At 10:00 am Monday, Wednesday, Friday I have a lecture to give. Period.


I could fix this by trying to fight harder. I could put signs on my door to leave me alone. I could stop replying to email and let my students wonder what’s up. Or I could win a different game:

Once a week, Thursday, I hide out. I work remotely. I don’t open my email until my deep work is done. By forcing myself to put the other things off until the most important thing is done, I ensure that it gets done!

Let’s Trade

Yesterday I talked about “unlearning the value of hard work.” The punchline was that we overload ourselves with “good” things to do, when we should be more picky and wait for the “great” ones. Hard work is good, when it gets you somewhere. Otherwise, it’s a distraction.

We hate the idea that we can’t have it all

But it’s true. Right now you’re reading this post. You’re not playing basketball, cooking risotto, solving calculus homework, or preparing a speech. By saying “yes” to one thing, you’re automatically saying “no” to everything else.

People who win balance trade offs

Our typical response is not to say”no.” Rather, we tell ourselves “later.” We don’t put things down, we just put them off. And this eats at us and the people we interact with. We set ourselves up to disappoint everyone.

Would you rather have someone commit but then keep putting you off, or just say “no” at the start so you can find someone else?

Two things to do:

  1. Eliminate from your list those things that you should have said “no” to earlier.
  2. Tighten your criteria for saying “yes” in the future: Am I the BEST person to do this? Is doing this the BEST use of my time?

If you can’t actually picture yourself sitting down to a task, having said “no” to EVERYTHING else in your world, then don’t commit to it!