Professors and coaches discuss what they’re learning in the classroom, on the field and from each other about helping students grow.
The website for Williams’ new Joseph Lee Rice III 1954 Center for Teaching is full of practical information about topics such as syllabus design, promoting active learning, reducing student anxiety and helping students develop healthy work habits. The collection of teaching strategies, curated from decades of faculty experience across every academic discipline, could just as easily apply to a history class as a hockey team. And that’s by design.
The coaches of the college’s 32 varsity athletic teams are also assistant professors of physical education, a longstanding Williams tradition. Many participate in the academic life of the college, advising students, attending thesis presentations and helping students develop time management skills. Academic faculty likewise participate in the athletic life of the college, attending games and serving as “faculty affiliates” for specific teams.
So in developing the first year of programming for the Rice Center, coaches’ involvement was a given, says director and biology professor Matt Carter. Since July, the center has hosted several panel discussions featuring academic and athletics faculty sharing their wisdom about the art of teaching. Professors and coaches are equally likely to attend the center’s events and programs—which have drawn more than 200 people so far—and to participate in The Open Classroom initiative, in which faculty can observe each other’s teaching and coaching.
“We have a lot to learn from one another,” Carter says, adding that he personally employs many strategies he has learned from his athletics colleagues. “Just as a coach runs specific drills during practices to prepare for the next game, academic faculty can provide progressively more challenging problems and exercises to prepare for the next exam or paper. Just as a coach develops a team and regularly checks in with their players, academic faculty can develop a strong classroom community and regularly check in with their students.”
In the fall, Williams Magazine asked Carter to convene a group of faculty and coaches who have been actively learning from one another, adapting tools from the academic world to the athletics one and vice versa. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Matt Carter (Rice Center Director and Associate Professor of Biology): We want our students to be intrinsically motivated to grow and try their best. But fear—of getting a low grade, of not making the roster, of embarrassing themselves in front of the class or team—can often get in the way. How do you address motivation and the willingness to take risks?
Ethan Barron (Head Track and Field Coach): Many students have never failed before, so we spend a lot of time removing the main barrier to risk-taking, which is a fear of failure or of what’s going to happen on the other side of this risk if it doesn’t go right. We create a lot of situations in practice where students are almost guaranteed to fail, so they see it’s no big deal and everybody still likes them—they’re still valued. Or I will actively have people visualize their worst-case scenario on the track so vividly that it makes them queasy. And if they’re able to do that and still put on their uniform and lace up their spikes, they’ve essentially vaccinated themselves against it. It’s a fear of the unknown, and knowing makes it a little less scary.
Marion Min-Barron (Lecturer in Public Health): I took this idea from my husband [Ethan], who collects pre-meet objectives from his students. I started to list my objectives as the instructor and then have every student in my Racism in Public Health tutorial identify their objectives in the course. I meet with them for half an hour to talk about the action points to help them meet that objective and what the outcome will look like. Sometimes, it’s about the grade, but it’s also very much about other things, like, “I want to become a better writer.” I’ll say, “Tell me more. In your mind, what is a better writer? Where did this idea of a good writer come from? What steps can we take to meet that, and what will that look like within a semester?”
Kris Herman (Head Softball Coach): I call that a pre-eval. People get so concerned about evaluations and the post-mortem look back at how things went. So, instead, before a drill or a game week, or even before a season, I ask: “What will this look like done well?” And, more importantly, “What will it not look like?” I had a complete career reinvention when I realized we’re not defining the negative. When we’re able to define the negative—when we turn on the lights—the boogeyman goes away.
Sara LaLumia (David A. Wells Professor of Economics): I’ve learned from talking to my students who are athletes that failure is not so clearly defined. Maybe the team lost a particular game, but the student is focused on the fact that someone had a really great performance after an injury or the team communicated really well with each other.
Meghan Gillis (Head Coach of Women’s Ice Hockey): We prioritize a growth mindset. Having them not tie their happiness here to results but instead to the journey is easier said than done but essential to growth. It’s about becoming a better version of yourself and knowing who you are as a person is greater than the player. Then the results take care of themselves.
Carter: There’s a pervasive perception among many students that everyone has to do everything perfectly all the time. Even beyond peer pressure, there are some tangible factors (“I need to get into medical school,” or “We need to win this game to make it to finals”) that encourage this. How do you address the concept of perfectionism?
Barron: If I wanted to be the best coach I could be, I would never go home to my wife and kids. I would be sleeping in the office. I’d be calling more recruits. And we in society are embracing the idea that to be the best person I want to be—to be the best coach and the best dad and the best Ethan and the best husband—I’ve got to basically be at 85 to 90% in everything and not maximize one. “Try your best” becomes a toxic mindset when you try to be the best student you can be, the best athlete and the best friend. It’s not possible to be at 100% in everything. So embracing “good enough” is a big part of our team right now.
Min-Barron: It really makes students cock their heads out of confusion when I tell them, “Give 100% of your 60%.” We can’t be perfect in every aspect of our lives all the time. So if you own that 60% is the confines or parameters within which you can write that paper, and I know you gave 100% within that…
Herman: I would say that a lot in athletics. I just say, “Come and give all you’ve got where you are right now.”
LaLumia: I sometimes make mistakes in the classroom, and I’m intentional about saying, “I did that the wrong way. That’s OK. How would we go about trying to fix it?” Earlier in my career, I would have had some sleepless periods, thinking, “Oh no, I shifted that graph in the wrong way on the board. Things are going to end very badly for me at Williams.” But, in fact, no. You can make a mistake, pick up and carry on. It’s good if students can see that it happens all around.
Steve Gerrard (Mark Hopkins Professor of Philosophy): I always tell my Logic and Language class that I had a logic professor who used to make mistakes on purpose so that his class would pay attention to the formula he was giving. I tell them I never have to do that—all my mistakes are natural. They come easily to me.
Carter: It’s possible to lose games and still win the season, right? Likewise, it seems like a growing number of academic faculty are allowing students to, say, drop a particular assignment or retake an exam—to basically allow for a “winning season” while still being able to make mistakes and grow.
Gillis: In hockey, you can turn the puck over and almost get scored on, and then go the other way and score a goal. It’s a game of constant mistakes. Even when you’re in the NESCAC championship game, 50% of the teams lose and 50% win, and even for the team that won, there are mistakes all over the place during those 60 minutes.
Barron: I’ve joked that coaching track is really like teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Everybody’s doing math, but I’m teaching arithmetic to one person and multivariable calculus to another person at the same time. How do you adjust for the needs of people coming to your classroom or team at vastly different ability levels and figure out what the next breadcrumb on their path is?
LaLumia: If it’s a lecture, I give one lecture, and everybody in the classroom is going to hear that lecture. But I love that students here are eager to come to office hours, and then you get to have one little group working on one problem and another group working on something else, and you bring them back together and form the groups differently for the next problem. I come to [teaching assistant] sessions where I can rotate around and talk to different groups. And I admire that coaches do this not just over the course of a semester but for four years, in many cases. I love it if I teach a student all the way through four years in a row.
Gerrard: I tell my class that speed doesn’t matter and that people learn things at different rates. In my Logic class, I’m teaching them new formal languages. Some are really comfortable with doing that. Others take longer, but we all end up in the same place. We’ll all succeed and learn these languages.
Carter: We just started an initiative at the Rice Center, The Open Classroom, in which faculty can visit each other’s courses. I’m trying to sit in on a lot of classes myself. Sometimes I see a student’s life through my own myopic part of Williams’ campus, of the Science Center. To actually experience what it’s like to sit in on a Spanish or economics or theater class or sports practice—it’s a wonderful way of seeing how many different ways students engage at Williams and how they’re stretched in different ways that I sometimes, as a faculty member, forget.
Carter: We want students to feel like they are in a safe, supportive environment and feel more comfortable taking risks. How do you build community in your classroom or on your team?
LaLumia: I try to identify to students in front of other students that they’re all good at certain things. And if someone has mastered a particular kind of problem, I’ll say during office hours, “You are the expert for solving for this kind of problem. Can you show your technique to this person sitting next to you?” Everybody is coming in with some strengths, and everyone can be a bit of a teacher to someone else.
Herman: We need everybody’s levels of expertise in order to put together a great contest, drill or even practice situation. We spend a lot of time articulating all the other things you can do to contribute to team success: cheering, having a conversation with somebody next to you. I imagine in the classroom, giving a wrong answer, kids can be so devastated by that. But there is something you can do. Maybe all you can do is make eye contact with the next person who’s talking. If that’s all you can do, that’s going to make a difference. We can help students by identifying those things. In my experience, the kids don’t know how to do anything other than performance that’s out front, that’s going to be in the box score or on the web page. We can all backfill the foundation of the performance—it could be a practice. We have 10 practices all fall. They don’t need to be perfect. They just need to be about community building.
Min-Barron: I’ve leaned into the possibility of creating community in a classroom by acknowledging all the different dimensions of the students within it. So I prioritize what effectively is a warmup. When people are chatty, I let them chat for five minutes. I’ve definitely learned from the coaching world the value of creating moments for connection and how that can trickle into positive outcomes and performances that we’re all interested in helping students find.
Carter: I like that example of a warm-up or transition period. In smaller courses, it’s definitely possible to start classes with a brief transition period or opportunity for students to share something with each other. In fact, I know that even in larger classes, some faculty ask students to write something down on a note card to let them share their thoughts or get something out and then transition into what they’re about to do. This transition is a really powerful time.