CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker

CollegeQandA asks: What will be on the test?

What will be on the test?

This question can also be phrased, “will this be on the test?”

For students, this is an important question.  For teachers, this is a frustrating question to hear more than once.  How do you figure out what’s on the test, but also, turn yourself into a good learner and not just a test gamer?

FRustrated man screaming

Student perspective of tests

Tests are pretty common in courses.  Tests can be one of the main assessments that then are converted into your overall grade in a course.  Students need to get good grades, and therefore, knowing and understanding what is on a test is fundamental to getting those good grades.

Teacher perspective of tests

Learning the material is common in all courses.  Tests can be a good and easier than others assessment that shows if students have learned the course material.  An overall grade shows how well students have learned the material (though I don’t really agree with this).  Testing helps determine a students grade in the course.

Some of education’s bigger perspective

The goal is to learn.  Real understanding can not be easily tested, and the learning process takes a significant amount of time for both teacher and student to achieve and assess.  How can we teach and learn important skills, understanding, and complexities with tests?  We probably can’t, and equally, grades are a poor signal in terms of how each of us will perform in the real world with complexity.

The reality perspective

So, you are going to have tests as a student, and many of us professors will use tests as time-reasonable assessments for what you understand in our courses.  Coming from a perspective of wanting to learn and understand and willingness to work on learning, be curious, and understand the world better will serve you well.

If you need to figure out what is, likely, on the test, then pay attention to your professor in lectures, do the class work (readings, assignments, and projects), and find more senior students to understand past testing trends.  In lecture, emphasis of ideas, points, and skills are strong indicators that the material will appear on a test.  Does the professor underline writing?  Is there a significant number of problems dedicated to a particular idea?  Many professors (myself included) plain and simple say, “and this would be an excellent question on an exam”.  Those signals are strong indicators that the material will be tested in the future.

Also, the past can be a strong predictor of the future.  Students who have previously taken the course will have a feel for what professors will ask on their exams.  Make friends with other students and ask about their experiences.  However, understand that we all have biases and you are the one who does or doesn’t benefit from learning.

Credits: photo titled: frustration; by Rakesh Rocky

CollegeQandA asks: Why is active learning the best learning?

Why is active learning the best learning?

Let us take one step back and ask “What is active learning?”.  The basic idea of Active Learning is that the person who takes action during class time is the one who learns the most and should be the student.  Therefore, if classes move from passive lectures to active lectures, where students do things, then the learning for students will be better or more efficient.

So, is active learning better?  Not always.

Playing and singing on harp

Diverse learning is better?

So, what is diverse learning?  I kind of made up the term.  I would call “diverse learning” an environment where a learner has the opportunity to experience and be assessed on doing in a number of ways.

For example, some of the best learning I have done in class was when both the professor and the textbook were not conveying the ideas successfully to me as the learner.  In this case, it appeared I had no resource that could guide me along the learning path to understand the material.  I learned to seek out other resources (textbooks, people, etc.) and to mold those other resources into the course I was being taught.  If the teacher or textbook are always exactly what you need to learn something then you will never learn to seek out and use other resources or learn from them.

Many people will bash on the lecture as a bad format for learning.  Some evidence might suggest that lectures are a poor efficiency use for learning, but equally, information and ideas will be delivered in your lifetime in a format that you simply need to focus on and extract meaning from.  If you can’t do this, then you will not be able to learn from lectures.

Active learning is one of the many modes of teaching and learning that should be part of your diverse learning environment, but you need the variety.

Active learning is good though

In terms of maximizing learning, I feel active learning is on a higher level than many on how to use class time efficiently.  It is, however, tricky to manage, more work for both professor and student, and non-conducive to many classrooms including their size, space, and content requirements.

Credits: photo titled: Active Child Laneway Adelaide12; by: Peter Tea

CollegeQandA asks: What is career fair and why should I go?

What is career fair?

What is a university career fair?  This isn’t that interesting a question, and as you can imagine, career fair has employers come the university to talk to students about careers at their respective companies/institutions.  A university can have a university wide career fair, but there can also be smaller career fairs that are focusing on a particular area or degree.  Most people think that career fairs should be attended in your graduating year where you dress up, and finally, look for a job post graduation.  The wiser among you should go early and often to learn and prepare for your career.  Nobody else will.

University career fairWhy should I go to career fair?

Well, yes, fourth year is a good time to go to career fair and try and find your future employer, but to be prepared for this culminating experience I suggest you go in your first, second, and third year too.  You want to go to learn how the career fair is done, and how you need to be prepared for the event.   For example, at Miami during career fair almost everyone is dressed in a business suit/attire, and students will line up to do short interviews with their prepared resumes that might be followed up with a post fair longer interview.  If you walk into the fair without the proper attire, then unless you’re looking to be recognized for your uniqueness, you stand out as unprepared.  Just knowing your basic career fair flow stops you from making these simple errors.

Also, just like doing integration, playing an instrument, or writing an essay, networking and interviewing are skills that need to be practiced.  Where can you get this practice beyond the mock interviews your career center might provide?  Career fair in your first and second year is great time to practice without any major consequences.  Also, you might find an internship early that will lead to your future career.

Keep in mind, university will help you develop some skills, but getting a job and the skills need to both get said job and perform well at it are your responsibility.  Career fair is a small piece of this, but one you should not ignore.

Credits: photo titled: SNRE Career Fair; by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment 

CollegeQandA asks: Why is university so expensive?

Why is university so expensive?

There is a general concern that the cost of higher ed is too high.  The question is, why is university so expensive?  The answer is the cost to pay people is high, and the funding for paying people is mainly left to the individual.

American money fanned outPeople are expensive

The people in the “university so expensive” case are the faculty and staff.  For example, to maintain a low faculty-to-student ratio (let’s say 20:1 which might be considered high) you arguably have 20 students paying for one faculty.  Let’s further argue that with benefits and pay the 20 students need to cover around 200,000 dollars.  Already, each of you needs to pay around 10,000 just for that single faculty.

Other ratios might enlighten us all

That single faculty is now paid, but what about the staff and administration needed to run a large institution.  What is the staff to student ration or the administration to student ratio?  What about the coach to student ratio?  Each one of these people has both pay and benefits, and therefore, tuition dollars also need to be allocated to these resources.

Who pays for the heat and electricity?  Who pays for the IT staff and infrastructure?  Who pays for the gym, career center, and grounds up keep?  It’s all part of tuition.

Does public education mean anything

In theory, public schools are fully (ha!) or partially funded by public tax dollars.  The idea is that we as a collective help pay for a young persons education to allow for their career mobility.  The reality is that less and less public funds are going to public universities, and as this happens the public university needs to raise tuition (or in a way, privately tax the young).

This is a societal choice, but under current trends an undergraduate degree is expensive, and the majority of the cost is used to pay the people that teach, maintain, and run the institution.  That’s why university is so expensive.

Credits: photo titled: Money Hand Holding Bankroll Girls February 08, 20117; by Steven Depolo

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do to get into graduate school?

What should I do to get into graduate school?

For a four year undergraduate program, asking this question in the fourth year is almost too late.  Getting in to a good graduate program (if that is the path you want to take) takes some planning.  Here are some basic ideas on grades, early, research and recommendation letters that may differentiate you for  graduate school admission.

Desk with person and many papers

Where to go is first

The reality is you need your reasons to go to graduate school.  In engineering, the typical Ph.D. reason is “I want to be a professor”.  In other fields, there might be other reasons, but you are going to want to go to the best school possible since the trickle down of academic pedigree will likely impact your future career options.

Grades aren’t the whole game, but they matter

Now that you have picked a top school to attend, you need to get accepted there.  The base bar to being admitted to the school is your grades and how you perform on any admittance tests.  For most US universities this test is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  You need to do well on the test and have a high GPA.  However, this is only the base bar that you must meet.   The reality is that students across the country and throughout the world are meeting this base requirement.  How are you going to separate yourself from this large group?

Undergraduate research helps

If you can get an academic paper, presentation experience, and research training in your undergraduate time, then you are in a better spot than most.  This is why the fourth year is not a great time to get into research since the time it takes to complete research and submit work is not a short period such as a semester.  It can take a year or more to complete a worthy research project or even participate in a large research team.  However, the experience of performing research will not only improve your chances, but will show you some idea of what graduate school might be like.

Letter of recommendations

Probably, the biggest step to get into certain programs is the relationships between your recommending professors and your target schools.  If one of your recommendation letters comes from a tight relationship with your target school and the professor writing the letter, then there is a significantly greater chance of you being put to the top of the pile.

The reason for this is that all professors write letters of recommendation for their students.  If I know the person who is writing the letter when looking through graduate applications, then I know I can trust their opinion, and a strongly recommended student carries more weight from someone I know than a letter from a random professor.

In this light, I highly recommend looking at where your professors came from (in their graduate and post-graduate work) as this may help guide you on where to apply for your graduate future.

Credits: photo titled: E.D Morel, ca. 1900-1915 (IMP-CSCNWW33-OS10-23); by Ashley Van Haeften

CollegeQandA asks: Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites, and what do they think about them?

Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites?

There are many resources on the internet that will help you in your courses.  Some of these sites do have material that students upload from previous years that you can purchase or upload your work and sell it – such as Course Hero.  Do professors know about these sites?  I would say a good number do, but definitely, not all of them.

Course Hero Screenshot

The existence of test banks (groups keeping records of all the tests and in some cases answers), course notes from previous years, and the accumulation of information as related to a course is not new.  The internet and its all-to-all communication model has just made it a little easier for this information to be archived and searched, and the existence of these types of sites was inevitable.  In the future, there might be some legal battles fought out on who owns what in the case of a course, but until then here are some basic ideas.

What do professors think about these sites?

I can’t speak for all professors, but I’m certain that universities and their faculty have a mixed opinion of this type of information being available, and a bigger concern on how it could be used.  For example, most professors would agree that using this material in the form of copying would be considered a violation of academic integrity.  In other cases, however, this material could be useful for a student to model solutions, answers, or responses that is a goal for a student to achieve.   Using material in this way might be fine.  So there’s a mixed feeling on this information being available.

Note, there are some course syllabi that strictly state that material from the course is not to be shared.  In these instances, uploading that course material is a clear violation that might result in further academic and legal battles that I can’t guess how they might proceed.

The future is active and tailored learning

In my opinion, these types of sites will have less and less impact as we proceed into better higher education.  For those courses that are template based and use traditional information transfer that is assessed through basic tests, then these types of sites are a concern.  For most of my courses, which are active learning with some student proposed work, these sites offer little benefit when a student has to learn to perform.

In the big picture of a degree, information is always available and is ever more accessible.  Information is useless unless it can be used in our ever theme of “doing”.  You won’t get a good job or a great career or achieve anything meaningful unless you learn to do.  Learning to do is hard, and there is no easy path.  Sites like these promise the potential for an easy something, but my guess is they rarely lead to any great achievement – just a way of skipping the work.

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do the weekend before classes start?

What should I do the weekend before classes start?

Your family has dropped you off at college or you arrived at campus by yourself, and you have a few days before classes start – that first weekend.  Is there anything you should do before classes start to pave the way for a good semester?  At Miami the excitement of the new semester has started, and the streets are alive with youthful vigor.

Uhaul van moving in

Get the basics done

For those of you who are in your first-year or new arrivals to campus, your first weekend is about discovering where things are, how to do the most basic activities, and figuring out who might be your new friends and acquaintances.  In other words, expect to be disoriented for the next few days, but make sure you ask questions to everyone so that you do everything you should to just have the basics down.

Your priorities are:

  • If you don’t have your University ID card, then where and how do you get it.  This thing will do a lot around  campus for you.
  • You need to figure out where and when your classes are.  I would find the rooms ahead of time so you’re not late on class one.
  • How do you get your daily food and pay for it?
  • Where are the people who can help you if you need information or things?

All these basics are also needed for more senior students, but I would expect that those of you in that category almost know all of these.

Connecting with friends new and old

Take some time to socialize and meet old and new friends.  The reality is that this is probably the quietest time in the upcoming semester, so you should spend time with friends to reconnect.  However, don’t overdo the socializing with friends and party too much.  There’s no reason to start off the semester already tired and disorganized.  You can easily balance your reconnect to friends with solid preparation.

Get a jump on course organization

If your upcoming courses have an online accompaniment, then there is no reason you shouldn’t take a peak at what material is already posted (including the syllabus), needed books, and creating a semester calendar (I would suggest google calendars) with your actual next few months (you can tie this into your goals too).

Do you have your notebooks prepared for each of your courses?  If there are slides for the course, then do you have them printed?  What other materials will you need for these courses?

Most important – Set your semester goals

The big thing you need to do the last weekend before the semester is to nail down your goals for the semester (whatever they might be).  This doesn’t mean a general goal statement such as, “do well in my classes this semester”.  Instead, to achieve a goal you need to break it into smaller goals that will help you achieve your bigger picture.

You need to make specific goals both semester long and short term.  So, if I want to “get in shape this semester”, I need to include short term weekly/monthly goals that I can measure to get me to the big goal.  Smaller goals such as: “work out three times a week at the rec center” and “follow a progression workout for the next month” are steps to my bi goal, and if I truly want to achieve the bigger goal I can check in and see if I’m meeting my smaller steps.

Be prepared and have some fun to get you in the right mode for the fall semester.

Credits: Photo titled: Moving Truck; by CJ Sorg

CollegeQandA says: Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing for the Summer

Bird in water with fish in its mouthWell, as the school semester draws to an end, I’m taking a break from writing here until next semester.  I might do a little writing over the summer for this blog, but my focus will be on cleaning up the website and getting the book into final stages.  If you have any questions that you would like me to write about, then feel free to contact me.  Otherwise, best of luck in your summers, and keep on learning and doing.

Credits: photo titled: Watercolour Wildlife – June 2013 – Successful Grebe in the Early Evening Sunshine; by Gareth Williams

CollegeQandA book review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Book Review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life? is written with us in mind, but presents ways to live with examples from how companies act and business theories apply.  The book reads well within the classic format of: story example(s) from business, business concept explained, and how concept can be applied to life theme.

The three major life themes are:

  • Finding your best fit career
  • Having good relationships
  • Staying out of jail

Each of these themes is covered well in the format described above, and overall, I enjoyed reading the book.  I plan on reading it again this summer if I have time.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is about ideas in your life.  If many of us had the wisdom that is described in this book, not only would life be better, but college life could be leveraged even more to get greater gains.  For example, chapter four (“Your Strategy is Not What You Say It Is”) discusses how many of our (companies and people) resources are allocated to things other than what are our real goals.  A good strategy means that we put our time and money towards the goals that matter, and if we allocate them differently then it might mean our stated goals are not our true goals.  Yes, we all want to do well in classes, but does our allocation of resources truly show that?

I would recommend this book to…

This book is an interesting cross-section between self-help and business advice.  The strength is how business concepts are applied to living a life worth living (this is of course your definition of worth living).  This book is recommended for all of us interested in taking a different look on why we behave the way we do and how we might make that better.