Monthly Archives: October 2015

CollegeQandA asks: What should I expect from my professors?

What should I expect from my professors?

SunTzu quote about enemies

College is a confusing time for many.  In particular, many 17 to 23 year olds are experiencing independence from their families with the increased expectations of higher education.  Where do your professors fit in this world as it pertains to relationships?

Firstly, not your close friend

In an undergraduate, your professors are not adversaries, but they should also not be your close friends.  That type of relationship may develop once you complete your undergraduate, and you might spend time with your professor in some leisure activities, but you shouldn’t be spending too much time together in instances such as time at a bar or romantically.  Instead, your professors should be trusted more experienced adults.

These are the people you can go to to get advice on your career, your education, and some of your challenges.  Expect them to learn about you and your goals and aspirations, but don’t expect them to be your close friend.

They are not your adversaries

Just because a professor is teaching your class and giving you grades, they are not your adversary either.  The reality is grades are meant to be an assessment of your learning (a feedback process) that allows you to figure out how you are performing at learning.  Many students may feel that the professor is attacking them personally, but hopefully, your teachers are trying to provide you with a fair feedback system in which you are being assessed based on your performance.

Similarly, you are not in competition with your peers either.  There might be some friendly competition with them, but in reality your peers and your professors should be part of your allies in helping you (and them) succeed.

Trusted adults who guide your learning

In the end, you are hoping that your professors will guide you for the better.  This means that the relationship is not that of strangers, but not of close friends.  Your professor will be honest with you in terms of how you are progressing.  They are not perfect and will make mistakes, and similarly, you are not perfect and will make mistakes.  They will be honest and provide you with feedback to help you learn and grow.  They are not your parents.  They are not your enemies.  They are useful in providing career advice, but remember their career is in academia.  They only differ from you in terms of experience, but they have also spent significant time thinking and working in their subjects.

Credits: Photo titled: Know your enemy; by Celestine Chua


CollegeQandA book review: Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

Book Review: Why Information Grows

Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies book cover

Why Information Grows by Hidalgo is a fascinating book for the first three parts.  Not that the last part (fourth part) was bad, but I lost interest in the economic perspective and details it took on.

The key idea I liked from the book is how it looks at how information is made from the perspective of living organisms, then humans, and then firms.  This process was well thought out and gave me a new perspective on information, ideas, and computation.  For me, that made the book worth reading.

This is a deep philosophical and economic based book with some aspects of complex ideas such as information theory and thermodynamics.  I would argue that the book is written well enough so that most people, without a deep understanding of some concepts, can still read the book and be pushed in understanding ourselves and our universe differently.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book isn’t really directly related to the typical ideas presented on CollegeQandA.  The book is fascinating in understanding what information is and how living things produce it, including what are the necessary conditions.  I would place this book into the mind expansion category for those who have the time and interest.

I would recommend this book to…

Anyone who wants to understand some fascinating ideas on information and how it relates to life and us as intelligent beings.  Also, there is some interesting theories on how this applies to economics, which some may find dry and others will find interesting.


CollegeQandA asks: What is knowledge?

What is knowledge?  Let’s try to define

Pinky and the brain dolls

Why I even ask these questions is concerning as I’m not an expert to answer it?  This question is so deep that minds much greater than mine such as Socrates, Pluto, Wittgenstein, and even modern day Bill Nye, Elizabeth Anderson, and Neil Degrasse Tyson would all provide a better answers.  But for the sake of discussing learning the idea of knowledge is interesting and complex.

I will ask a group of people, “What is learning?”

Inevitably the word knowledge appears in the answers. Still the word seems very intangible and poorly defined.  For example…

If I ask you something that you don’t know, but you know how to look it up if you need it, is that knowledge?  Or is just the knowing how to look it up the knowledge.

What if the thing you know, for example, riding a bike, can’t be explained to me, and is just a skill or idea that you have, is that knowledge?

They say you don’t know something until you can teach it.  Do they mean you don’t know it well, or you just haven’t learned to know it to teach it?

Finally, what if a group of people have the knowledge to create something, but no one individual could create that something on their own.   Is that knowledge?

Turn to learning

That’s why I always turn to the idea of learning.  From an engineers perspective, it is easier for me to understand learning as the behaviours that we have ingrained and continue to refine in our heads and body via neurons and chemical processes.  From this point, I would then define knowledge as the learned capabilities within our brain expressed through our body.

Why care about knowledge and learning?

With the above simplification, then it is easy to understand how to succeed in college – assuming you are there to learn and know.

If you want to know, then you need to learn.  If you want to learn, then you need to refine and create those neural networks.  If you want to activate those networks, then you have to do.  If you want to refine the networks, then you must do repetitions over time.

Learning and knowing is that simple.

Credits: photo title: Pinky & The Brain; by: JD Hancock


CollegeQandA asks: Who are the best teachers in college?

Who are the best teachers in college?

a monk holding books

This question needs some definitions to help us talk about it.

  • Learning – we’ve talked about this before.  Learning is the stabilization of our neural networks in our brain for a desired response.
  • Teaching – guiding and motivating opportunities for students to work with ideas and information so they can learn it through experience.
  • Education – a combination of teaching and learning.

Therefore, the best teachers will be those who can get you to do the learning.  This doesn’t mean that you will like that teacher, you will like how they teach, or you will like what you are learning.  From a rating perspective, you should keep this in mind.

Is it that simple?

From my experience with teachers and teaching, I have had good and bad teachers just like everyone else, but my definition of good and bad (at this reflection point) is not about liking them.  It’s about learning and growing.

Some of my most disliked teachers turned out to be great learning opportunities.  Lecture became useless for learning the material, and for that reason, I learned to turn to other sources like the textbook, friends, and the library.  Now, should those teachers be classified as good teachers?  Probably not, but the point is it is not simple to define best when you approach class from a perspective of learning.

The best teachers are…

Your best teachers will motivate you to learn more than what is required by the course.  They will push you to become the lifelong learner, critically think, and self-author what you think the world should be.   And you will probably like them since the learning process is also social.

There are techniques that we professors learn to help you through the process, but learning (and teaching) is hard.  We are doing research to try and improve this process, but in reality, commitment from both teacher and learning to the education process is all about hard work and slow incremental improvement.  Just like dieting, there is no magic pill…yet.

Credits: Photo titled: Buddhist teacher; by: Artis Rams


CollegeQandA asks: How should I take notes in college?

Notes – how should I take notes in college?

musical score

Notes are the general term for information that record in class/lecture that represent what ideas, methods, answers, highlights, diagrams, and/or citations were presented during class time.  The goal is that your notes capture the ideas so you can review what happened during the class in order to learn.  The trick with note taking in class is what to write down?

Approach 1 – Everything

The most common technique I see is trying to write everything seen and heard.  The assumption is if you can write down everything that is written/discussed in class you have captured all the information and can later decipher it.  This approach could work, but the key step is deciphering it later, which should be done ten to fifteen minutes after the class.  The deciphering problem is reorganizing the notes into something you can understand and that captures the main points of the lecture.  That process, unfortunately, is both rarely done and hard to do.  Also, the trick in class is to hear as well as capture what is presented, and this is very difficult if you are stuck in the task of writing down what you see.

Approach 2 – Note Taking Methods

There are a number of systems that researchers and educators have created to help you organize your notes.  These include methods such as Cornell and Mapping methods.  I have a preference for mapping techniques since they can be implemented fast and have a visual component, which I prefer.

Note taking methods are useful in different situations, but they do not necessarily solve the problem of what to write down.  Instead, they provide a means to organize your notes so that it is easier to review and take them.

Define the goals and create your process

You need to understand why you are taking notes.  In a math class, your notes will have two major components which include the mathematical idea, definition, and properties and definitions for example problems.  In an English class, you will be noting arguments, interpretations, and citations related to the material.

Not only do you need to know why you are noting different things for later recall, you need to come to the lecture prepared (another student rarity).  If you have an accompanying textbook, lecture slides, or class topic, then you have access to enough information to come into the lecture with a good idea of what will be covered and how.  This means you have a good idea of how to organize your notes as related to the idea.  If none of these resources are available, then ask your professor what will be covered in the next lecture.  I can’t imagine they would keep these ideas secret.

During the lecture you need to listen.  Professors typically make statements such as “and this is really important”.  Statements like that mean that the stuff coming next is highlighted.

Finally, notes need to be reviewed and revised.  This should happen as close to the class time as possible.  As time passes, what you learned will be lost.


In my book, I make a specific recommendation for the one piece of technology I think is invaluable.  But in general, technology can also help you capture class more efficiently.  Ask if technology can be used, but keep in mind knowing the goals, being prepared, listening carefully, and reviewing material are all necessary regardless of how good the technology is at capturing the material.   That is until Johny Mnemonic technology comes along.

Credits: photo titled: Worth Noting; by Shawn Carpenter


CollegeQandA book review: How We Decide

Book Review: How We Decide

A (Mind/for) = Numbers book cover

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is a fascinating pop psychology book about how we make decisions.  This is the stuff I love to absorb, so the review is biased in favor of the book – regardless of verifying the science behind the claims.  Actually, most of the books I review are biased towards whether I liked reading them and learned anything new.  I, rarely, go out and confirm the claims.

Anyways, yes, I liked this book.  It takes you through 8 chapters of ideas on how we human make decisions.  Questions such as when should you trust your instincts and how does emotion help/hinder your decisions, are explored by the journalist with the help of research and experts in this field.   Each chapter is accompanied by a number of stories that illustrate the points.

The book is entertaining to read, and the complimentary stories are interesting and related to the topics.  I think I finished this book in a week because I it read well and was entertaining.  However, don’t expect any formula on how to make your decisions better.  The book is mainly about our current understanding of human decisions.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

College is all about decisions.  Should I go to college?  Should I go to college X?  I don’t know the answer to this, how can I figure it out in the next 5 minutes?  What should I study next?  Should I go out with my friends.

This book fits into another one of those Meta-ideas books; basically, the more you understand yourself, the better you seem to be.

I would recommend this book to…

Anyone who wants a better understanding of how humans make decisions.  This comes with the advantage that the book is a good and entertaining read.