Harnessing the power of positivity in higher ed
There's a well-known quote from Norman Vincent Peale’s famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, that says, “Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate.” You’ve likely heard it — or some version of it — numerous times, and the reason for that is because it’s true. And this may be especially true of higher ed environments, where helping students cultivate successful habits and mindsets is top of mind for instructors.
No one embodies this idea more than Dr. Nora Junaid, professor at the Isenberg School of Management at University of Massachusetts Amherst. In fact, everything Nora does seems to radiate positivity, which has been the guiding force behind her success as an instructor & mentor.
Positivity starts with yourself
When Nora joined the Isenberg School in 2016, she was handed two Introduction to Business Information Systems classes, with 220 students each. She got through the first semester without knowing exactly how to approach it.
“I didn’t have a structure, I wasn’t sure about the software, I wasn’t sure about the book, and I didn’t feel that I had a good connection with the students,” she says.
It was clear something needed to change. Nora spent every day of that first holiday break poring over the course, thinking of strategies to reorganize it and coordinate her TAs. By the time break was over, she’d revamped it entirely into something she felt would work much better for everyone, faculty and students alike. When she saw her evaluations after the second semester ended, they were up by at least 30% — a huge jump.
The course quickly became very popular, and more courses were opened to meet demand. What started as two sections with 440 students has become 5 sections with around 900 students enrolled per semester.
Building a positive team...
With such an in-demand course, Nora can’t handle it alone. She manages 25 TAs, each of whom teaches a section, and three PhD students, and they all must be in sync so that every student gets the same positive teaching experience.
Nora is quick to point out that fostering camaraderie, transparency, and positivity among her TAs is important to the success of the course and helps in mentoring and coaching her team. Using weekly meetings, online message chains, and other technology helps them stay on the same page and feel supported without demanding too much of their already busy schedules.
“Most faculty fail to realize that these students have a life, they have courses, they have dissertations. I make sure I show them that I have their backs and that they’re appreciated. It makes them feel a step above being just an undergraduate student and helps them a lot.”
...building a positive community
Creating a positive and supportive environment for 25 TAs is one thing; replicating that for 1,800 students a year takes something entirely different. Nora recognizes the special considerations needed to keep them motivated and engaged.
Going into a lecture with 219 other students can be intimidating, exhausting, and de-motivating. There’s no guarantee the instructor will notice if you’re even there or not. To help build a more connected community, Nora again turned to technology.
She developed her own app, Nora’s Corner, that students can download for free and get insights about everything that’s going on in the course, their TA’s contact information, and an open forum in which they can ask questions anonymously. She also created an Instagram account for the course — @excel.ninja — featuring her and the TAs answering questions & uploading lighthearted but still helpful posts.
“We’re using technology to let students know that ‘Hey, we’re a community, we’ve got you — no one’s going to slip through the cracks.’ It’s a huge motivator for both students and TAs.”
“We are changing students' lives”
“I knew I was onto something,” Nora says. “After that first semester with the revamped course, I realized that being a lecturer was my passion. I didn’t want to apply for assistant professor positions, I just wanted to work on improving as a lecturer."
The thing that really fuels her is seeing learners succeed because of a piece of information she shared or a skill that she taught them. Providing that influence and focusing on how to help students stay positive by using positive teaching strategies is one of her biggest drivers.
“We are changing students’ lives. When they come into the classroom, there’s an ‘a-ha’ moment you can see in their eyes. No amount of research and no paper or journal publication can satisfy an instructor in that way,” she says.
Nora admits that the idea of changing the world by changing students’ mindset sounds like a bit of an exaggeration. But when you're teaching and influencing 900 students a semester, and you can positively affect one thing in their thinking, then the scope of that change becomes very real.