Archive | February, 2012

Incredible! (But that’s not a good thing!) – SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 4, Credible

27 Feb

According to authors Dan and Chip Health (Made to Stick, 2008) an idea needs to be perceived by an intended audience as credible if it’s going to stick. This is true whether the topic is an advertising pitch like Wendy’s famous “Where’s the Beef?” or whether it’s a conceptual analysis of the difference between particulars of Immanuel Kant’s and John Stuart Mill’s philosophies.

With the ad campaign, the goal was to present Wendy’s burgers in an appealing and memorable way for consumers.   In my ethics class the challenge is similar – to present ideas in a way that students find relevant and engaging to their professional practice in health fields. How exactly to do that?  The Heaths provide specific suggestions:

For an idea to be memorable it has to be credible and for it to be credible it must be at least some of the following:


  • testable – students can see for themselves;
  • presented on a human scale – especially if it’s about statistics;
  • presented by an authority – an expert  like you or someone with personal experience.

See for yourself
The Heaths suggest you “outsource the credibility of your content to the audience”.  If you want students to understand why Thoreau decamped to Walden Pond for two years, send them out to spend time in nature and let them see for themselves.

Since I want my students to see how Kant and Mill can guide ethical decision making, I send them out to find examples. Every week.  At first they’re incredulous that they’ll be able to find anything, but soon they’re trying to decide which example is the most interesting.  Here’s a few from last week alone:

  • Doctor Discipline: State Fails to Offer Full Disclosure (Star Tribune  02/05/12);
  • Dr. Chase has a romantic relationship with former patient who later returns for further care.  Problems ensue, but Chase saves her life (House TV Program 02/13/12);
  • Manager wants to accompany employee to worker’s compensation physician visit (personal experience of student);
  • Wanting Babies Like Themselves, Some Parents Choose Genetic Defects (New York Times 12/05/06).

The ensuing discussions were great.  In each example students considered ethical imperatives and debated whether a greater good might justify a departure from protocol.  Because they found the cases themselves, they could see how commonplace was the tension between the theory of a universal imperative to guide moral behavior and the theory of that weighing results can lead to the right action.

Human Scale
Justice is another concept we study in my class.  To bring it a human scale, we will take on topics like the scarcity of organs for transplantation and the percentage of uninsured people in the US.   On their own these statistics don’t convey the problem in real – credible and tactile ways.

To make statistical information like this more memorable, the Heaths recommend focusing on a human frame of reference and emphasizing the relationship between numerical values.

Consider their example of the difference between these presentations of water:

  • Bottled Water for retail sale: 8.4 cents per ounce
  • San Francisco tap water ~.0022 cents per ounce.

In this scenario, an individual could refill a bottle of Evian with San Francisco tap water once a day for over 10 years for ~ $1.35, about the cost of one bottle of water purchased at a convenience store.

Here’s how I shape my presentation on this model:

  • Americans without health insurance  ~50 million
  • The number of Americans without health insurance is roughly the same as the number of people in this country who smoke.

Because of this scenario, students in my health-related course now report that now when they see someone smoking, they are reminded about the problem of access to health care.  It stuck!

The third credible factor pointed to by the Heaths is that credibility connects to our authority as people with disciplinary expertise and personal experience.  “Living proof” testimony connects the abstract realm to the concrete and links what students study with how people live.

An example of this impact comes from a colleague who teaches a comparative course on criminal justice.  She began one of her classes with a story about a group of American student visiting a prison facility in Denmark.  As they toured the cafeteria, one student was shocked at what she saw and asked why prisoners had knives.  The perplexed warden replied, “Well, how else can they cut their meat?”    The ensuing discussion about cultural assumptions and expectations was lively.

A story from a student in my class many years ago had a similar impact.  To make a point about confidentiality, she told a story of tired colleagues taking the bus home after a difficult day.  They were venting about a very sick patient.  They didn’t use his name but they did comment on the seriousness of his illness and his grim prognosis.

Sadly, sitting behind them on the bus was the patient’s wife who figured out who they were discussing.

Students know confidentiality is expected, but with this story they have a concrete sense of why it matters so much.

And of course, what we do as educators matters.   We want what we teach to be tenable.  That is, we want students to be able to hold in their minds and manipulate the ideas and concepts that shape our disciplines. To do this, we can strive to make our teaching as credible as possible.  Crafting assignments that ask students to see for themselves, presenting data so that is connects to a human point of view and balancing theory with stories from everyday life can help achieve this goal.


  • SUCCESS in Teaching – An Introduction and a First Principle, Simple
  • Active Learning will not (in itself) lead to SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 2, Unexpected
  • Engineering Concrete Footings: Foundations for Sound Pedagogy – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 3, Concrete
  • Water image by Jordi Payà and Confidential image by highersights, both used via CreativeCommons ShareAlike License

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