Getting Off Academic Probation—Looking Further for Success

October 28, 2006

So, the semester is over and a mediocre performance has led to academic probation.

There is plenty of advice and support from the academic counseling centers and the web. The focus is to understand the reasons for the dismal performance, make the adjustments, and do the work. There is often an implicit assumption that success can be achieved within the school programs.

That may not be the case. The individual may be in the wrong situation and headed in the wrong direction. Academic probation is a wake-up call to consider this option along with the academic fixes.

It may be time to move on to a new program, a new institution, or an entirely new path. It’s a big world and it’s shortsighted to limit possibilities to those that are currently known. Such searches may not be easy. One way is to look into for fields that have natural energy for you. The ultimate direction is eventually find areas that there is a natural ability and interest to do well.

A woman, a first semester junior, in an engineering college was not doing particularly well. She claimed interest in engineering, but felt that she was in the field based on advice of others.

During the meeting, she had a brace on her wrist. The woman reported that she took a “spill” while doing competitive figure skating. She became quite animated with her recount of her love of the sport, although she was by no means a champion.

How could a mild interest in engineering ever compete with this type of energy? Perhaps nothing could, but she was encouraged to look into other areas that had at least some of the resonant energy for her that she had experienced in her skating. After some searching, the energy for her was found in psychology. She left the engineering school on her own. The woman became an excellent psychologist rather than a mediocre engineer.

Some of the signs that it’s time to consider a change:

  • The program to get off probation looks like drudgery and not worth the effort.
  • It is a priority to avoid course work.
  • The school is a stage to do lifestyle experiments at other’s expense.
  • The academic program is someone else’s idea of a path to a successful life.

Look for ways to explore for energy:

Beginning at the current school, actively explore for what resonates in you. There are two important considerations:

(i) The process is based on energy and is not an intellectual search based on ideas;

(ii) It is an active process seeking out new fields, not drifting.

For example: Find some people at the school who really enjoy the experience, perhaps faculty or students, and explore it. See if anything in their experience resonates with you. If it does, it’s a clue. If not, just continue the experiment in other areas.

The earlier that the real reason behind mediocre performance is identified, the more options there to make changes and get yourself in a direction to succeed.

There are many great stories about people who radically changed directions after an academic set back and achieved great success. There are only a few about those who settled for mediocrity.


If the s emester is still in progress, check the post:  Academic Survival–The First College Semester



Teaching Students Problem Solving— Goal and Strategy

October 24, 2006

At some time, often as early as middle school, the complexity of school activities ratchets up a notch. Simple reading assignments are replaced by projects requiring multiple steps such as a paper requiring research. Clubs begin taking on more involved projects. There is a transition here and just a little guidance about problem statements and strategy can go a long way toward making it successfully. A problem statement, strategy plan, and a method to stay on track can help students to manage larger problems and projects.

State the Problem/Goal

Often, the goal is clear to everyone and stating it seems to be unnecessary. Sometimes though, there is a misunderstanding about the problem or goal. Any confusion on this point can lead to wasted time and work leading to an unsuccessful project. A key question to answer:

“What does a successful project look like?”

As simple as it sounds, take the time to answer this question and state the desired result clearly. The student should be able to visualize the finished product. The goal must be a quantifiable, physical fact.

The expected date of completion should also be included. If it is a group project, write it down so that everyone can agree.

Make a Strategy Plan

For a project with multiple steps, a plan that the student has made himself can help to keep the work on track. The strategy plan outlines a roadmap for the project or problem solving activity. The strategy is written down before the actual work begins. Once the plan is made, there must be an intention to follow it.


Two questions that can guide making the plan are:

“What are the steps required to complete the project?”

“Why is this action being done?”

The plan essentially allows a big project to be reduced to a sequence of smaller tasks, each of which can be done by the student. The progress of the work can also be checked against the plan.

For example, if the assignment is to write a paper about the pyramids. The goal statement may be the subject of the paper, the length, the number of references required, the format, and the due date. A strategy plan could include the sources for the research, the completion date for the research, analysis of the research, and submission of the first draft.

Expect Changes—Stay on Track

Not even the simplest project follows the plan. Changes are not a big deal if they changes get things moving back in the direction of the stated goal.

The original plan provides a basis for making these changes. The overall question is the similar:

“Why is this change needed?”

“How is it related to reaching the goal?”

One risk with changes is the student can lose sight of the goal and drift off in some other direction. These questions can help to focus the child on the reason for doing the work in the first place. A reality check keeps the work on track.


With a little experience, this framework of a problem statement, a strategy plan, and method to stay on track can be used intuitively on other projects.

related articles are: Teaching Problem Solving to Children-The Cycle of Confusion/Resourcefulness/Confidence and Teaching Problem Solving to Students–Tools and Resources 


Teaching Students Problem Solving—The Cycle of Confusion/ Resourcefulness/Confidence

October 21, 2006

“I am completely lost and do not understand this at all!”

Who among us has not let out this wail when wrestling with computers? We have all been confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem in the operation of a computer. These problems appear unpredictably in different areas—software bugs, network connections, hardware failures, and viruses to name a few. The initial situation appears dire, but over time, individuals find ways to resolve the issues and get back into operation. These methods may include trial and error, consulting friends and vendors, or even looking at the instructions. Confusion, resourcefulness, and confidence all come into play.

Resourcefulness and confidence are important traits that can be learned to develop more proficient problem solving skills. However, since the immediate focus is usually on the content of the problem (Get that computer working!) many people, especially children, are unaware of this cycle role in the problem solving process. These traits can best be discussed when there is no immediate crisis.

Problems, by their very nature, often present ambiguous, frustrating situations. Confusion is a normal reaction and often arises early in the problem solving process. If confusion is unexpected and disorienting, the ability to work on effectively solve the problem diminishes. When people are not comfortable with confusion, emotional flashpoints often erupt.

One way to recognize the negative effects of confusion is by a lack of specificity in the complaint. (“I am completely lost. or “I don’t know anything about this.”)

In teaching problem solving, emphasize that confusion is a natural part of the problem solving process. Plan for it. The first step develop an awareness that being confused is expected and not a big deal. Then, the direction is to accept and become comfortable with the ambiguity of the situation so that the focus can be on working on problem itself. Teach students to recognize the emotional component of confusion, and to take the time to let the emotions settle so that they are able to work at their best ability.

Resourcefulness is the capacity to find new approaches when earlier paths are blocked. The direction is to show the child a way to allow the energy of confusion to be used in an effectively. An excellent first step is to interrupt the reinforcing action of the confusion. The most common method is to take the time to propose alternative ideas.

Typical questions that can help redirect the energy to new options:

“Can the problem be restated in a different way?”

“What do I know about this subject?”

“Who may know more about this than me?”

The questions may only take a few minutes to consider. However, it is also an important step to begin to identify other paths and different ways of seeing the problem. New possibilities for thinking about the problem can open up. The confusion doesn’t necessarily end, but the hold on the mental functions is weakened.

Building Confidence

Use personal examples from their own experience of confusing problems that they resolved. Talk through the steps in detail. Highlight the ways that the options were expanded. Although this approach may appear obvious, children do not always recognize their own process of learning.

Returning to the example with computers: Young people especially have confidence in their computing ability. Often, they have developed more proficiency in computers than their parents. Take a specific example of a problem they have resolved. Explore with them how they felt when the problem surfaced, how their understanding grew, what operating problems they faced, how they overcame them and their increased skill by confronting and solving the problem. This exercise introduces the ideas of confusion, resourcefulness and confidence in a way that they have experienced. They can see this for themselves. As confidence grows, so do the problem solving skills.

Finally, emphasize that the skills are theirs and can be applied to other subjects—like math!

Related articles are: Teaching Problem Solving toStudents–Goals and Strategy
and Teaching Problem Solving to Students–Tools and Resources

Detailed methods are outline in Strategies for Difficult Exams

and  Effective Quantitative Problem Solving Methods

Great Ideas Going Nowhere–Getting Projects Launched

October 16, 2006

Great ideas often go nowhere. The idea may have merit, relevance, and a capable persistent champion. At the beginning, there is a burst of enthusiasm. Then, at an early stage, there is an unanticipated obstacle, momentum is lost, and time passes the proposal by.

Plan for obstacles and opposition. The likelihood of success is increased by identifying alternate options in advance. These options increase flexibility to respond to unpredictable circumstances as they occur. Momentum can then be maintained.

Example—Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519 Expedition

Ferdinand Magellan’s idea for an expedition to the Spice Islands and circumnavigation of the earth is an example of multiple path planning. This expedition, at least as it is presented in introductory history, reads as if Magellan simply requested and was given the ships and the crew to sail west into the ocean. In fact, obtaining a commission for a fleet was a highly improbable long shot. In perspective, Magellan was a Portuguese expatriate trying to convince a hostile Spain to support his proposal rather than that of Spanish nationals. It took a lot of flexibility, cunning, politics, negotiating and luck to pull this off. The path from idea to approval of the fleet did not follow a predictable process. However, for the crucial elements, Magellan had multiple options. For example:

Two governments–The kings of Portugal and Spain, bitter rivals, had the opportunity to provide a charter for the expedition.

Both government and private risk brokers were involved in financial backing

A number of different goals appealed to the sponsors: Spices, land, glory, power over rivals, and the potential for huge wealth.

Assistance was obtained from Portuguese expatriates, alliances with rivals, court lobbyists and proprietary knowledge.

All of these options were used as the decision process played out into the final commission to launch the expedition. History remembers Magellan, not the ideas of his rivals. Of course, Magellan himself did not survive the expedition, but that is a story of execution (literally in this case).

Multiple Path Planning–Application to New Ideas

The process from idea to approval can not be expected to follow the initially proposed path. Increase the likelihood for success by planning multiple options.

1. Even before the idea is presented, identify the crucial elements needed for support.

2. Crucial elements are specific for a project, but may include sponsors, funding, schedules, expertise, and resources.

3. Although it at first may appear that there is only one option for each of these crucial elements, stretch to find others.

These options may not be needed, but can provide the flexibility to keep momentum when the obstacles are encountered and increase the chance the idea will progress to an actual project.

Multiple Path Planning stretches the thinking at an early stage in the process when planning has the most leverage on the activity. This stretching exercise is related to method of Put Aside the First Idea described earlier.

Independent Yet Connected–Story

October 14, 2006

Another open ended story.. For those reading an open ended story here for the first time, the introductory comments are attached:

An open-ended story is an invitation to see your own situation from a fresh perspective. Unlike conventional stories, there is no specific point or moral or lesson to take away. It can be enjoyed for itself, or converted figuratively to help interpret an actual situation in a new way. In this sense, it is not an intellectual exercise, rather just an opportunity to see if any ideas resonate.

It can be interpreted in an individual way. Further, as time and conditions change, an individual may see a different aspect from one reading to the next. And if this type of thing doesn’t interest you or nothing resonates, just pass on by

Indpendent Yet Connected–Story

A young boy came of age during a time of political change. A time of oppression was being uprooted by the call for freedom. In his village, the men would sit and argue passionately into the night about these changes. Ideas and hopes for freedom never spoken before were debated. The boy listened. Once he had heard them, the ideas had a life of their own within him. They were out and could never be banished or returned to the source.

Years later as an old man, a grandfather, he played with his granddaughter and followed her into the meadow chasing butterflies. The young girl ran through the field and with both hands closing captured one in the open space of her cupped hands. “Grandpa, I have a butterfly. He’s mine.” “Well, let’s see.” said the old man. “Very slowly, just open your hand and see what the butterfly does. The girl watched it freely flutter away.

Now a mature young woman, the granddaughter was pursued by a suitor who is deeply in love with her. The young man loved her desperately and did everything that he could to try to win her affection. But still she would not commit. “I will do anything for you, what do you want? Will you stay with me?” He said. Her reply: “In order to stay, I must have the freedom to leave.”


Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (


From one perspective, each incident stands independent and complete.

From another perspective, the incidents are connected by the idea as it transformed in time and location. Then, each incident is both a consequence and effect of the previous one, and a contributor to the cause of the following one. Each is a cause and effect.

The effect of any activity, even when it appears to be trivial at the time, cannot be known. So each activity demands care and attention.

Disrupting the Cycle of Inefficient Meetings

October 10, 2006

Certainly at least once a week, you can find yourself trapped in a poorly run meeting, wasting both time and resources. Such meetings seem to be accepted as a fact of business life. However, an unfocused meeting can be sharpened right when it is in progress. More importantly, within a business group, the cycle of inefficient meetings can be broken. It takes a planning model and some preparation.

How do these meetings continue to happen? The inefficient meetings are not due to lack of information about procedures. By this time, most organizations have provided books, web sites, instruction, or high-priced consultants to address this inefficiency. Still the meetings go on, frustrating many. One problem is that the training lacks immediacy– that is the behaviors are not evaluated and corrected at the time they occur. Further, an individual person acting alone to change things is generally not well tolerated by the peers. However, a small group can make a big difference in the quality of the meetings. One approach is described below:

Background–Planning Model based on Urban Renewal Experience

In an urban renewal method used extensively in the 1950s, the government razed tracts of inner city neighborhoods with the intent of reconstructing them. This approach failed for several different reasons– priorities changed, funding was not approved, or housing concepts were misunderstood and the residential towers constructed proved unworkable.

One current approach to urban renewal is to identify a still vibrant core within a deteriorated neighborhood and take selected actions (i.e. incentives to attract business mortgage options to attract resident, increased community services) to encourage growth outward from that center. At some tipping point, the growth becomes self-sustaining.

The key points for applying this experience to meetings are the vibrant core, grass roots empowerment, and incremental action.

Application to Business Meetings

Identify a Vibrant Core

A small group, that is both frustrated by the inefficiency and recognizes the benefits of focused meetings, has to be identified. As a starting point, this group may be just a few people in a business unit who tend to attend the same meetings. Often people join in a self-selection process. It is important that the several members of a group routinely attend the selected meetings. The informal grass roots group can empower themselves to facilitate change on their own.

Incremental Intervention

The group members identify a small number of very defined points that are considered to be crucial to have an efficient meeting. If the points are not present, or if the meeting veers from the track, straightforward questions can disrupt the inefficiency. These simple questions demand answers, not further discussion.

As an example, four points for an efficient meeting are discussed below:

1. Goals and Objectives

Very often, the opening comment is that the meeting group is getting together to talk about an issue. And that is all that happens. There are a few cases when meetings are just to talk. But seriously, there should be a cogent reason for the meeting that should result in at least a direction. If no one can articulate it, the meeting is on the wrong track.
Ask: What is the goal of this meeting? What will a successful meeting accomplish?

2. Agenda

A meeting without a road map is not likely to stay in the intended direction. Reference to the agenda during the meeting allows the group to recognize diversions and get back on course. The key word here is thoughtful. The agenda frames the discussion. When agendas are shown for review, people generally accept the basic premises and often make comments around the edges. It is one of the real ironies when the meeting leader reports that he was too busy to make an agenda. There appears to be no time for individual preparation, but the time of the group is used inefficiently.
Ask: Where is the thoughtful agenda?

3. Decisions

Sooner or later, the meeting must result in decisions or directions for action. It is important that the group has a common understanding of how these decisions will be made. There are significantly different ways: Autocratic (one person decides), Consultative (one person decides with input from others), democratic (each person has a vote) or consensus (all members support). The method of decision making affects the presentation and discussion of the information. If people are unclear as to who is responsible for the decision, it is likely that a clear decision will not be made.
Ask: How will decisions be made?

4. Accountability

Follow-up of the agreed upon action is necessary to prevent more things from going into a black hole. If the meeting adjourns without a clear idea of the follow-up actions, it is not likely that the actions will get done.
Ask: Who is accountable for the actions decided of the meeting? What are the dates?


Immediacy and Repetition

Since the group can gently affect the meeting as it takes place, and the benefits can be observed, there is a high degree of immediacy to reinforce the behavior. However, it takes repetition to change habits so that the questions may be required at different meetings in order to begin to break the cycle.

Two Cautions:
(i) Intervention style is a skill.It is important to intervene in a style that is naturally perceived as helpful. People are more receptive when they sense that a primary motivation is to improve both the situation and develop their own skills.

(ii) Some meetings are not appropriate for intervention.

Key factors are the relationships between people. The intent is to improve the situation, not to antagonize, embarrass, bruise egos, or harm yourself.

In summary, those who attend inefficient meetings can empower themselves to improve the situation without waiting for outside directives. If a small group can do this successfully, others will follow.

Employee Performance Appraisal Ranking Methods Lessons about the Flaws from “Arrow’s Paradox”

October 3, 2006

Many organizations have adopted forced ranking performance appraisal systems. Each employee is evaluated against peers and performance arranged from highest to lowest.

These end of the year performance appraisals resemble report cards for adults. There seems to be more angst though, since compensation, career direction, ego, prestige, and morale are all involved.

The crucial activity in the appraisal process is the procedure to determine the specific position of each employee relative to co-workers. The ranking methods are generally used empirically by the participants. A failure to understand and compensate for the inherent limitations of the method can limit the overall fairness of the process.

Ranked performance appraisals can be compared to ranked voting methods. Examples of a ranked votes are the college football and basketball polls published during the season. These rankings, using a method known as the Borda count, assign a different number of points for each position (i.e. 10 for the best team, 9 for the next etc.) Each voter ranks the teams according to his preference. Then, the total number of points each team received are summed for all of the voters and the overall team positions determined.

The major breakthrough in the theoretical understanding of ranked voting methods stems from the work of Nobel Price winner Kenneth Arrow, a mathematician and economist. In 1951, he published a proof of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (also known as Arrow’s Paradox). This finding was big news at the time and initiated a large body of work in understanding the validity and limitations of different voting methods.

A simple statement of the theorem: Each ranked voting method has inherent flaws. A slightly more detailed statement is that no voting system (more than 2 voters) based on rank preferences can possibly meet a certain set of reasonable criteria when there are 3 or more options to choose from. These reasonable criteria are detailed in the reference below.

The performance appraisal ranking process is not quite the same as a single winner election, but the method is subject to the flaws identified by the theorem: (1) Strategies can be employed by a subset of the electors to lead to an outcome that is not the choice of the majority; (2) Biases can be introduced if the voting methods are simplified. These factors are briefly examined below.

Distortion Strategies:

An example of a personal strategy to distort the overall results can be encountered in the sports’ polls. In a closed voting system, a voter can grossly change the evaluation of one team (i.e. deliberately ranking it well below its performance level) to benefit another. However, for performance appraisal applications, such selective strategies are mitigated by a collaborative discussion prior to the position assignment. There is some transparency if an elector is attempting to make a significant deviation to advance a personal objective. This discussion can address the potential flaw in the method. Obviously, if there is not a free discussion or some electors are unaware of these strategies, a distorted outcome can occur.

Simplification: Voting by Pairs

A more subtle bias, however, can be encountered during the actual ranking of larger groups by subsets. Generally, the voters have a group with many members to evaluate. In practice, these evaluations are often done using subsets, usually pairs. Comparisons are made in turn until there is agreement in the employee positions.

As an example, there is a group of 15 people whose performance must be ranked. The first six names are:

Adam Don Joe John Mike Sam (and 9 more)

Rather than evaluate the entire group and vote on all 15 at once (for example, using the Borda count), the first two, Adam and Don, may be considered. If Don is evaluated as the better, Don is moved ahead of Adam, the next comparison is with Adam and Joe. The process continues until the order is agreed.

The use of pairwise comparison would appear to get around the “3 option” condition of Arrow’s Paradox. However, this is not the case:

Another common way “around” the paradox is limiting the alternative set to two alternatives. Thus, whenever more than two alternatives should be put to the test, it seems very tempting to use a mechanism that pairs them and votes by pairs. As tempting as this mechanism seems at first glance, it is generally far from meeting (… the reasonable criteria …). The specific order by which the pairs are decided strongly influences the outcome.” (Reference below)

The counterintuitive assertion above is that there is a bias depending on the order of presentation.

In the earlier example with names, the people were listed alphabetically—Adam, Don, Joe etc. The names could be randomized. The bias still remains, it is just transferred to different individuals. Perhaps, the most common and biased case, is when an individual, drawing upon her own experience and opinion, submits the presentation list to the voter group. This approach introduces a subjective bias into the process. One person’s opinion may continue as artifact through to the final ranking.

There may be methods to minimize this flaw, but such methods are generally not known to either the participants or the human resource administrators. That expertise is held by others and is rarely sought.

Arrow’s paradox cannot be avoided. In order to obtain the fairest ranking evaluation process reasonably possible, the participants should some familiarity with the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the method in order to use it properly. The performance appraisal process is only as fair and unbiased as its weakest point.

Posts on Evaluations: Struggling to Give a Good Employee Performance Review–Maintaining Credibility

Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal