Monthly Archives: August 2015

CollegeQandA asks: Why can’t I use my phone in class?

Why can’t I use my phone in class?

This question may or may not be something you wonder depending on your professor(s).  In my classes, the syllabus states:

  • Texting, surfing, or any other out of class communication should be kept to the back rows of the classroom. Such behavior has no impact on your grade, but equally, the lack of attention in class means you should not expect me to make an effort in helping you deal with topics you miss in class due to lack of attention.
  • Cell phones should be kept silent (including vibration) during class.

In my classes, I allow devices to be used, but I require two things.  First, you do not cause interruptions for other people who want to learn and focus. This is the reason I ask that laptops and phones to be used at the back.   People like looking at screens, and if you are in the front row of the class on a YouTube page or social media site then a high number of students will be distracted and will look at your screen.  Second, if you are not paying attention, then don’t expect me to repeat materials for you.  Attention (just like attendance) is a choice that you get to make.

Why can’t I use my phone in THIS class?

There are, however, professors who strictly ban devices and screens from their classes.  Is this fair?  That’s an interesting question/debate that I’ve had with many of my colleagues where I come from the allow-in-class side.  What I have found from these discussions is there are two reasons for banning devices.  In their minds, instructors are either trying to help you focus by banning devices or view the activity of checking your devices in their lecture as rude.

I find the second argument, rudeness, fascinating based on my experiences at academic meetings and conferences.  In a room at one of these gatherings of 20 people, I’m happy and surprised to make a presentation where 5 of those people are paying attention without looking at a screen at some point in my fifteen minute presentation (maybe I’m just a bad presenter).  Therefore, since my colleagues can’t separate from their screens, how can I force my students to.  In modern day society, the rudeness of focusing on your screen even in mid-conversation is not considered bad manners in some circles (not all).

cyborg portraitHelping you to focus and control your screen addictions is a noble goal, but I believe that this is a personal challenge for all first generation cyborgs (my designation for anyone with a smartphone).  We all need to learn and practice our ability to focus (to recommended books of interest: Focus and Willpower).

But I need [device X] for …

The counter arguments that I’ve heard from students is the need for the device in class to learn.   Sure, there are certain situations where this makes sense.  For example, I’ve been known to ask my classes if they could look up something online for all of us.

If you think these devices are good for taking note, then you appear to be wrong.  An article (The pen is mightier than the keyboard) written by Mueller and Oppenheimer reports results from their study that finds that a laptop is worse for retaining the lecture compared to traditional pen and paper.

Also, your smartphone is not a good scientific calculator (at present) since it is very unlikely that you will be allowed to use it in exams.  Instead, your base calculator and scientific calculator (my beloved TI-85) need to be used regularly so that you can learn how to use that device.  There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to use a function on your calculator during an exam or quiz.

Some classes have come up with ways to integrate modern technology.  Twitter or other social collaborative methods  (such as wikis) have been effectively used to allow real-time questions and collaboration from students.  There will be other innovations too, but we still seem to be in an era of technology is lauded as the great learning device, but soon becomes sometimes beneficial to learning on rare occasions.

Credit: Photo from Michelle Zell-Wiesmann; title: Cyborg



CollegeQandA asks: What is the best way to study?

Let’s start with the assumptions and definitions


  • Test – an assessment technique to evaluate student learning and provide feedback on what has been learned – yeah I know, optimistic
  • Test dump – short term studying period, taking the test, and then forgetting everything afterwards
  • Studying – time spent towards learning ideas, concepts, and knowledge
  • Problem – a question, challenge, or need that may or may not have a solution

For the sake of this discussion I will make some assumptions that if you do not hold them, then the advice is unnecessary.


  • The goal of studying is to learn
  • The goal of assessment is to help the student understand what they have and have not learned
  • Problems encountered in undergraduate courses at the first and second year are mostly solvable

How to study

studyAs stated above, studying is a method of spending time to learn about an area.  From what we know about learning, the actor (us) needs to activate pathways within our brain to create and refine the networks associated with that area of knowledge/skill (The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning).  Also, it would be great if things learned for one thing are transferable to other areas.

This all implies that you, the actor, need to study by doing, reflecting with feedback, and repeat.  So, depending on the course this can be done in a number of ways.   For example, to write better, you need to write, edit, rewrite, edit, … maybe with a person to help you refine, rewrite …

Problem based courses – Math, Physics, etc.

For problem based courses, which are courses people tend to find most challenging, the doing is repetitive practice of problems spread out throughout the course.   This comes from a meta-study by Dunlosky et. al. (2013) in which they looked at the best ways to learn material in college as a summary of many other studies.  Throw out your highlighters.  Stop rereading passages.  Focus on practicing problems that are assigned and will be similar to those on the assessments.

Just like learning a new sport skill, learning an academic topic means practicing.  For courses where the major assessment is tests and exams, the act of practicing problems (both the mechanics and the understanding of material) is the best doing to study successfully and succeed in these types of courses.  Secondly, make sure you are doing this throughout the semester, and repeating problems that you already think you know how to solve.

Credits:  creative common photo from The Master Shake Signal; titled: Clean Study Bag


CollegeQandA related links: Duke Protests on summer read; Back to school tips; student hacks; find a school and scholarship

This weeks related posts:


CollegeQandA book review: A Guide to the Good Life

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life book cover

A Guide to the Good Life is written by Irvine, a Philosophy professor, who helps us understand and has implemented in his own life, a life philosophy based on roman stoicism.  Stoics were one of many Greek philosophies that has survived in writings and had a popular philosophy school in Greek life.  Stoic philosophers discovered and worked on thought  ideas, but also focused on their life philosophy – a way of living with joy.  The thesis the author puts forth is that stoic practices can be a guide to the good life in our modern day.  In particular, a life philosophy might be a path for some of us to find joy.

The book is split into four parts:

  • Part 1 – looks a the history of Stoic Philosophy and explains why the book focuses on the Roman Stoics as opposed to the early Greeks.
  • Part 2 – looks into Psychological tricks/practices that stoics used in their life philosophy.
  • Part 3 – looks at stoic values and how they relate to their practice.
  • Part 4 – the author looks at our modern life and how the practice of stoics can fit with a modern life.

The best part of this book, from my perspective, is that many of the ideas from the stoics is summarized and packaged well so that I can understand them.  In the past, I have tried to understand a variety of philosophies/religions including Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. but the historical texts can be very difficult to read and relate to.  Irvine does a good job at explaining many stoic ideas in his book and creates a succinct review of how to practice stoicism.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This is a broader question since this book looks at a philosophy of life.  This is a BIG metaphysical question that needs to be asked and thought about by each of us individually.  Some specific ideas in the book, including negative visualization, seem to be applicable to helping us understand our needs in the world.  These ideas do not directly relate to college, but similar to the ideas in mindfulness and meta-thinking, I believe that better understanding and control of ourselves relates to how we learn.

I would recommend this book to…

the “interested in life” and “how to think better” people.   This means that, irrespective of your current beliefs and way of life, you are interested in other approaches to life and wonder how to improve your own mind.


CollegeQandA asks: What is the difference between high school and college?

What is the difference between high school and college – Are they different?

Yes.  Let me highlight a few reasons why, and how the transition can be challenging for many students.

highschoolFirst, the most common idea in popular cultures is that of the: First-year 15 (more usually called the freshman 15, but I’m against the word “freshman”) – the idea that your grades will go down by 15 points and your weight will go up by 15 pounds.  I suffered from only one of the two in my first-year, and I didn’t gain any weight.

Your life

The first major change, independent of the academics, is the life change (for most people).  Until now, many of you have relied on your family to do much of the “life stuff” – laundry, food, bills, doctor, etc.  University life is a first-step, though still sheltered, into you running your own life and becoming an adult.  This includes the all important You choose when, what, and where to be since it is Your life.  Nobody is responsible for you attending class, getting your homework done, sleeping, eating, showering, etc.  The great freedom you have been searching for is now here, but you now have to take full responsibility for your actions.  This includes legal consequences for breaking the law.

University vs. High School teachers

Another major difference is that the people that teach you have different responsibilities in university versus high school.  In both cases, the teachers want you to do well and achieve great things, but in high school your teachers see you 5 days a week and they have a much tighter relationship in your learning process.  They can check if you have done your work each day and are progressing in learning.

Let’s assume that you spend 6 hours a day in high school equaling 30 hours a week.  In college you will have between 12 to 20 hours a week of class/lab/studio time with an instructor (not necessarily the professor).  The expectation is that instead of in-class learning, that much of your new found free time will be spent studying.  College classes are, likely, larger than your high school classes, meaning the professor has less time to spend with you.

The major crux, though, is that a college professor has no responsibility to give you a passing grade just because you attended.  A college course sets a bar of success that you must satisfy, and depending on your demonstration you will be graded accordingly.  High school teachers, on the other hand, are pushed to make sure you pass your course, and to move you on through the system.

Is that it?

Those are just two reasons why the two institutions are different.  There are many more, but keep in mind that the biggest step in succeeding at this transition is you getting organized, disciplined, and working hard.  I have seen many people avoid the first-year 15.  Also, minor hiccups in this transition are not the end of the world.  Try and avoid a disastrous first year (failing courses) since this will cost you both financially and academically.


Photo from creative common license: City of Boston Archives;  titled: Roslindale High School – Exterior View 1, Poplar St., Roslindale, Boston, MA. School building photographs circa 1920-1960 (Collection # 0403.002)


CollegeQandA’s Related Links: Student Loan Debt on NPR; STEM active learning in Nature; Are tenure track professors better teachers?

Here are the links this week – Student Loan Debt; STEM and active Learning; Are tenure-track professors better?:


CollegeQandA book review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Book Review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
This is a review of: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking authored by two mathematics professors – Edward Burger and Michael Starbird.  The book is a five part progression through techniques to make you a better thinker.  Each progression is explained in the text, and the authors then relate stories to elucidate the concepts with various students and situations they have encountered over their teaching and research experiences.

I have read a number of books on critical thinking, which can be hard to understand, but this book takes an approach that provides direct and simple ideas on how to improve your thinking.  The book, simply, makes sense, and even for a college professor, it is useful to be reminded both about how you and your students think and sometimes forget to think.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

If I had a top ten recommended books on thinking and learning, then this book would be on the list.  Meta-thinking is one facet of self-improvement that will have big and direct benefits in college.  This book is short (and small).  Because of this, the authors recommend reading the book 3 times.  Not sure if that’s needed, but this is a nice book to get you started on understanding what learning and thinking are, and how to them more effectively.

And the book has a section on questions.  So, of course the book relates to this site.

I would recommend this book to…

Anyone interested in a quick and useful read on improving their thinking.


CollegeQandA asks: Why do my professors write on a board? Are we in the 90s?

Technological Luddites can’t teach me

Why do my professors write on a board?  Haven’t we crossed the 2000s and embraced the electronic slide presentation, the multimedia formats, and technology to teach?  Note, none of these are bad, but there’s a reason the board and pen’s and paper are powerful tools.

Early on in graduate school, I was fortunate to be taught by Zvonko Vranesic.  Not only did he encourage me to understand the world better, he was an inspiration as someone who thought about many things – among his accomplishments included being an International Master of Chess, no less.

He gave me two teaching tips that I have kept in my arsenal as I work towards becoming a good teacher.  Related to the question, he told me why you should teach using the board when you can.

white board writing
Ramblings on a white board

Much of the lecture is about pace

Continue reading CollegeQandA asks: Why do my professors write on a board? Are we in the 90s?


CollegeQandA asks: What is a lecture?

It’s French for shut up and listen

Pardonne-moi.  Lectures are oral presentations with the intention of teaching you materials in a particular topic.  In modern day universities, though, the lecture is more appropriately called class-time in which a number of activities directed toward learning can happen including a traditional lecture.  What is a lecture, therefore, can mean both a traditional presentation or it can mean the time for a university or college class.

Class-time with a student-centered approach

One thing we have learned about learning, or at least, think we have learned about learning is that a fundamental part of learning is the based on the learner doing stuff – called student-centered learning.  Therefore, under this theoretical model, many schools are moving away from the idea of lecture towards using class time active engagement.

Active engagement can include classes that use various approaches including:

If my class is a traditional lecture is that bad?

 a person talking near a podium
Sage on the stage

A lecture is as much an opportunity to learn as any other, but it comes with challenges.  In your future, you will be asked to sit and listen to someone for greater than 30 minutes, and then be expected to retain important aspects of that discussion.  It might happen in meetings, online presentations, or other forms, but it will happen.  The lecture is a great way to practice learning from listening and seeing alone.

photo credit: Michael Wesch – Pop!Tech 2009 – Camden, ME via photopin (license)


CollegeQandA’s Related Links: Washington Post video on college spending; Liberal Arts thoughts on usefulness

Some things I read this week (related links):