Translating 7 Effective Habits for the Classroom

Brian Taylor

November 03, 2011

When I recently embarked on my new career in academe, I was eager to inspire my students and show them that my field, genomics, is exciting, fun, and dynamic. But I quickly discovered that developing and teaching an engaging new course is a daunting task.

After the first month of teaching a course on genomics in public health to college juniors and seniors, I noticed a lack of participation and general sense of confusion in the class. Clearly something was wrong. I suspected that part of the problem was the generation gap, and wondered how I was going to successfully teach the Millennial generation, especially in our technology-driven world, where lecture notes are presented on PowerPoint, the lectures themselves can be recorded, and knowledge is a click away on Wikipedia. I didn't want to challenge those technologies, but I did want to add humanistic values back into the learning environment.

At the time, I was rereading Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which looks at seven practices common to successful leaders. It struck me as very relevant to teaching and learning.

With the tenets of the book in mind, I decided to survey my class to discover what type of learners the students considered themselves. One question asked whether they were "sequential" or a "global" learners: Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in a linear, orderly way; global learners can grasp facts quickly and randomly and rearrange them in a new way.

The majority of my students labeled themselves sequential learners—the opposite of me. While I like to piece together random facts without any linear connection, my students were lost in my web of thoughts. I soon concluded that my way of learning did not work for everyone. I needed to reassess and modify my teaching habits to complement my students' learning styles. After finishing the book, I loosely adopted Covey's seven practices to focus my teaching practices:

Habit 1: Begin with the last class in mind. In Covey's discussion of his first recommended habit, called "Begin With the End in Mind," he advises readers to imagine their own funerals. Who would be there? What would people say that would matter to you the most?

Applied to a teaching context, think about the last day of class. Think about the important things you want your students to learn and remember.

Now, when I walk into class on the first day of the semester, I think about how I want my students to understand the basic concept of genetics, its application to the field of public health, and the integration of different disciplines in the field. I want them to be knowledgeable about the advantages and disadvantages of getting a genetic test and to think critically about the value of the information. Keeping that goal in mind, I consider how much detail should I teach or not teach.

When planning the coursework leading to the last day of class, map out realistic goals. "Think backwards" to make sure you and your students remember the course objectives.

Habit 2: Teach proactively. According to Covey's second recommendation, "Be Proactive," people must take the initiative and hold themselves responsible for inaction. This habit echoes the principles of constructivist teaching and activity-based learning.

On the first day of my classes, I ask my students to write the answers to three questions: What grade do you see yourself getting? What will you do to maintain that grade? What do you want to learn?

The purpose of this "contract" is to encourage my students to plan their goals for, and approach to, the course. In this way, I use "backward design" for my course development, and encourage my students to use the same method for their learning.

Habit 3: Put first lectures first. When discussing his third recommended habit, "Put First Things First," Covey advises readers to rank their tasks by clearly defining them and managing time accordingly. Applying that concept to the classroom, set up your first lecture to form group cohesion and build relationships with your students. Continue focusing on the broader scope of the course and establishing academic relationships (instructor-to-student, and student-to-student).

On the first day of class, I play an ice-breaker game to introduce the students to one another and let them find common interests and differences, and I explain that our project for the semester is to learn from one another.  

Habit 4: Think A-plus/A-plus. In discussing the habit "Think Win/Win," Covey explains that two people with conflicting goals can often find a mutually satisfying compromise if they are open to considering one. Applied in the classroom, I think that part of my goal as an instructor is to be receptive to students and what I can learn from them. "Think A-plus/A-plus"means trying to be an A-plus instructor to create A-plus students.

Habit 5: Seek first to learn, then to teach. In his fifth habit, "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood," Covey explains the importance of listening to others' points of view before trying to convince them of something different.

In the classroom, people learn in different ways. Some learn visually, others actively; still others prefer sequential learning. Often we teach in the same way we learn, but that is not necessary the best way. Educate yourself about different learning styles and try to incorporate teaching methods that can reach all kinds of learners.

Habit 6: Collaborate. According to Covey's sixth habit, "Synergize," people should share their thoughts to create new, integrated ideas. He uses the classroom as his example: Sometimes there is no single right answer to complex, hot-button issues, yet discussing them in the classroom can give both instructor and students the opportunity to listen to each other's ideas and gain greater understanding of how others see things. When we collaborate, we can maximize our learning and create improvements together.

Habit 7: Sharpen the pencil. In "Sharpen the Saw," Covey recommends strategically maximizing your time and talents to maximize your mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical energy and to maintain balance. When we keep those four aspects aligned, we can be more effective in our teaching. Maintaining balance and renewal is essential.

In a society where technology is constantly overstimulating our minds yet removing us from the human touch of interaction, I think we can add back the humanistic values through the seven habits. By making technology our ally and approaching teaching as a complementary opportunity to teach students the human dimensions of learning through collaboration using technology, we can strengthen our goals and build a foundation for student-teacher communication.

As we tailor our course materials to teach the most important lessons in light of different learning styles, we can then begin to understand how we can achieve success for both instructors and students. Using technology and current issues that are important to students, we can encourage them think creatively to solve real-life problems. Finally, we should teach them to balance the essential elements of life, to maintain inquisitive minds, spiritual balance, physical health, and human connection.

The seven habits can shed light on our teaching and make us more effective instructors, prepared to teach material in a way that our students will remember for years to come.

Kee Chan is an assistant professor of health sciences at Boston University.