Monthly Archives: November 2015

CollegeQandA asks: What do I do when I just don’t understand something?

It happens to everyone

What do I do when I just don’t understand something?  You may think that “smart” people never have this problem.  Well, the idea of “smart” people is a misnomer.  Anyone who learns something works hard at understanding the material, and hard is probably the most important part.

signs pointing to a bunch of places

In many cases, you might understand material or acquire skills more easily than someone else, and I call this aptitude.  Aptitude can even get you through K-12 education and into your college education, but everyone at some point runs into ideas, concepts, and skills that don’t just come easy.  In my life, I have repeatedly met these points and know there are more to come; for example, I have been challenged by writing well, recursion, complex math, and graph theory.

So, what do you do when you are challenged?

The first choice is do you really want to learn the idea.  There is nothing wrong with not challenging yourself and pushing to learn something, but this is your choice.  Those who choose to want to learn need to apply the acclaimed “grit” characteristic, because learning something that is challenging is not easy, there is no fast procedure, and the process can be both painful and time consuming.

Once you have decided you want to learn something, then you can start to learn it.  My starting suggestion is to read the book: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.  This book provides a number of tactics on how to think through difficult topics.

Does a book have all the answers?

No.  When you are challenged by learning, there is no linear path (step by step solution) to learn.  For example, when I was in my graph theory class and needed and wanted to learn the topic, it took me three months of daily work on problems to just get a B in the course.  This included doing the same beginner problems over and over.  The concept of recursion in computer science took three lectures of nothing clicking in my head until I had what seemed like a magical aha moment.  Some ideas like probability and statistics are still not areas where I have strong understanding.

The only constant that I have observed constantly in each of my learning challenges is time and work.

Credits: photo titled: from confusion hill; by hitchster


CollegeQandA book review: Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think

Book Review: Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think

Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think book cover

Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think is written by Lakoff and presents a fascinating thesis of a cognitive science model of the conservative and liberal mind.  The point of the model is to help understand why conservatives and liberals see their worlds and then push their respective agendas.  This is done over five sections in the book, and a sixth section leaves the cognitive model and presents the authors political biases (I like how the author prepares us for this, but also presents his views).

Overall, I both liked the model and have a hard time finding any problems with the book.  I’ll leave it to you to read his thesis, because I cannot present these complex ideas in a few simple sentences, but the starting point is based on how a liberal and conservative mind conceive of government as related to family structures.  Also, the focus is on US politics, but as I look at this model related to my familiarity with Canadian and British politics, I think the application to these political domains is sound.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This relates to our discussions since understanding how one thinks as it relates to the world is as useful as understanding how we think.  We are all biased, and when it comes to our politics and thinking, we have a very small understanding of ourselves, and yet we’ll debate till our face goes blue.  The value of this book is that it illuminates what we might think is our politics and their politics, but instead gives us a model that helps make sense of the us and theirs.

I would recommend this book to…

I would recommend this book to anyone.  It’s a pretty big book with some deep concepts, but I read it quickly by not digging down into some of the subsections.  I think the main ideas will be helpful for all of us, and might make our political discussions more moderate and become of debates instead of arguments.


CollegeQandA asks: Why do I need to improve my work ethic for college?

Coming from high school

Why do I need to improve my work ethic for college?  First, let’s look at the process of teaching a class to understand why college might be more difficult than high school as it relates to work ethic.  Any class that a teacher has needs to be viewed as teaching a group.  Because this group has different abilities, teachers tend to teach to the middle.  This tends to mean that there will be a group of students will not be challenged in the course, and there will a group of students will find the course very challenging.  This is true at any level of teaching, and teachers hope to bring as many students past the middle.  If we’re lucky we can inspire the entire group to raise their learning significantly.

TReadmill running

In high school, the class demographics is less selective than a university.  A simple argument is, you do not need to go to university while you do have to go to high school.  That difference, alone, means that the university class is more selective to people who want to do something.  Next, consider how majors divide students further into groupings of people who are pursuing a specific topic/area.  Therefore, the top, middle, and bottom in a college class is more selective.

The reality is that in your high school days, you were probably at the top end of the class.  This means that you were not, likely, challenged as much as you could have been, and therefore, you didn’t have to work too hard to succeed.   You might have been called “smart”, but unfortunately, “smart” is more of a concept compared to the skill of learning.  And learning happens via hard work.  The reality is many college first year students do not have a good work ethic, and for this reason, the first year transition can be hard as courses get into more challenging topics.

Work ethic

You need to improve your work ethic, and this is hard.  I know from personal experience that a bad work ethic can be a serious challenge to a successful college career.  My work ethic was fine when I was interested in the topic (for example basketball and making video games), but I had just enough work ethic to squeak out of my first two years where I wasn’t interested in the material.

One recommendation for high school students is to find your work ethic and then learn how to motivate yourself to working through the stuff you don’t like.  Then when you find your passion you will be able to do great things, and when you encounter something that is a real challenge you will have the ability to work through it.

Credits: photo titled: physical-activity-120112-M-2021D-019; by MilitaryHealth


CollegeQandA book review: The Professor Is In

Book Review: The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job book cover

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job by Kelsky is the essential guide to finding an academic position.  After reading the book, I wonder how I, actually, got an academic job in the first place.

The book is packed with information about academic jobs including the process both from the interviewee and interviewers perspectives.  Over ten sections that are an organized presentation of much of the information provided on her blog, the reader is presented with focused quality advice about the academic search.  Even if you have a great graduate advisor who is mentoring you to achieve your goals, this book is an essential read and resource for you.  Even in my current existing position, I believe the information in this book is invaluable in understanding the process.

I have now been on both sides of the academic job hunt, and the books insights are dead on.  I think I have recommended this book to every Ph.D. candidate I’ve met since reading the book.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is about preparing to find an academic job. There is a loose relation to CollegeQandA, but for those of you who are considering trying to join the professorate this book provides a realistic and well thought out plan and execution for the process.  This is also a valuable resource for faculty members in their attempts to mentor their students.

I would recommend this book to…

This book is useful for anyone looking to apply and get an academic job. The details in this book are a treasure trove for job hunters, and every graduate student should own this book to understand the process. Arguably, you should read this book before pursuing a graduate degree to understand what the academic job market is like and how you might succeed in it.


CollegeQandA asks: Should the department of my major be highly ranked?

How good should your department be?

Should the department of my major be highly ranked?  Your department is a division within the university where your major (or minor) is housed and mostly administered.  In many cases, a department will determine the curriculum to earn a major, and will teach the classes in relation to that major.  For example, a physics undergraduate major will be part of the physics department.

Podium medals

What will rankings tell you?

First, what might be some good rankings to look at from a department perspective (as opposed to rankings for entire universities).   US news rankings is not a great source since the departments are ranked based on graduate ranking.  This means the main measurements are related to research output, and these metrics have little impact on undergraduate education.  LinkedIn’s career rankings is an interesting way to approach ranking your major since it measures departments in terms of career prospects of active alumni, and this would be the ranking system I might use.

Still, the limitation of rankings is that a few metrics are used to evaluate quality, and the relevance of those metrics are questionable depending on your case.  A better approach is to have an understanding of what majors are learning and where are they working afterwards (where LinkedIn works well).  Those two questions are more relevant to your individual case than perceived and measured metrics.

Another, it doesn’t matter, it’s up to you

From an undergraduate perspective, I feel that similar to choosing a college, how well ranked your department is has very little importance in your undergraduate degree.  However, if you know where you want to work (both job and location), then specific schools may serve specific markets.

Most state and provincial schools supply employees to local companies, and a few of their graduates will find their ways into top global corporations.  It is useful to look at your potential schools pipelines.  However, your first job is a first step that will lead to many other opportunities if you perform well.  Your undergraduate is an opportunity to learn and grow.  Any department at a good school will push you in this growth, and where you take yourself really depends on your efforts in learning and doing.

Credit: photo titled: Paola ESPINOSA y Tatiana ORTIZ, bronce, ¡Felicidades México!; by Marco Paköeningrat


CollegeQandA book review: Mapping your Academic Career

Book Review: Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life

Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor's Life book cover

Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life is written by a Gary Burge a professor of theology at Wheaton College.  The book is one of the few books that attempts to provide faculty at universities with an understanding of the 3 major stages of an academic career.  The book is short, but provides a good model for faculty trying to understand their career path – of which I am one.

The key parts of the model is the three cohorts as he calls them:

  1. Will I Find Security?
  2. Will I Find Success?
  3. Will I Find Significance?

These three cohorts map to tenure track, post tenure, and senior professor, and within each stage the book provides details and suggestions about what is happening and what you should be be doing during each of these phases.

These types of books (academic careers) are very rare.  I went into our university library searching for the literature in this domain.  In our library, there were shelves of books dedicated to tenure track life, but only 2 books on mid-career academics.  This book, which is not in our university collection, is the best of the 3 books I’ve read on mid-career issues in academia, and for the few of you who are in a similar boat to mine, I think this book will be useful to you.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book relates to our themes from the professor perspective.  Most of what I write, however, focuses on the undergraduate experience, so the relation is loose.  Still, the quality of the book and niche it fills meant I had to write a quick review to help get the word out.

I would recommend this book to…

This book is meant for tenure track, mid-career, and senior professors.  If you are thinking of pursuing an academic career as a graduate student this book might provide some insight on what a full career might involve.


CollegeQandA asks: What to look at on a college visit?

The College campus visit

View of american university

I see visitors to our campus year round, but during fall there is a big upswing in the number of tours.  This makes sense since this is about the time a high school senior student is trying to pick where they will apply and attend next year.  So now on the tour, what to look at on a college visit?

Just like this website, it’s all about questions.  However, you must realize that colleges are going to present themselves as best as they can.  So, this is where you need to either find the honest person or ask probing questions to find out what really matters.

Ignore how pretty the university is among other things

If you can, start by assuming that all colleges have their beauty and traditions.  How nice the place looks is not relevant to your education and future career.  The following does not matter that much except in special cases:

  • How big is your dorm room (getting a single room might matter)?
  • How new is the student center?
  • How good is the rec center?
  • How good is the BLANK sports team?
  • Are there smart boards in the classrooms?
  • How many Nobel laureates are there at this institution?
  • What rankings is this university doing well in?
  • Is there a water park – really…?

The second piece of advice that seems to be becoming common is, “you’ll just feel right when you get to the college for you”.

I would argue that most colleges of a mid-range status provide a good undergraduate education, and most colleges have a similar culture, resources, and structure compared to each other.  The difference between an elite school and a mid-range school is less about the education you will receive, and is more about the strength of the cohort that will attend with you and potential access to alumni.  A strong cohort sometimes means being a small fish in a big pond.  You have to ask if elite or mid-range provides you what you want.

For example, my first question to any out-of-state visitor to our school is, “Why aren’t you thinking of going to state school X in your state?  They have a good engineering school.”

Figure out what you want

Your questions should be directed when you visit.  What you really want to know is will the undergraduate education be suitable for what you want and how you learn.  This can mean:

  • How much interaction will I have with the professors? – some people want lots; some people don’t want any
  • What will be my typical class size in my first year as well as my fourth year? – do you want small or large classes
  • How hard is it to get in the major I want to pursue? – will you be able to get in and succeed in your desired path (what is the retention rate in that major – not the school)
  • What do people from school X do after degree Y? – where are graduates going geographically and work wise, and is this what you want to do
  • How much will it cost? – you need to get a feel for the cost (tuition+extras – typical discounts)
  • Do you have any special needs and are there services for that need? – if you need something special will it be available
  • What distractions/entertainment are there at a college like this? – residential and city campuses have very different types of lifestyle
  • How is the community and culture of the major you want to do? – what do students and faculty do

In the end, skip the tour and stay local

My advice is to stay in-state for your undergraduate degree.  I believe almost everyone can adapt to the school they pick, so just pick one in state and start there.  Community colleges are another great opportunity if you are a little bit unsure and want to try with a lower entry cost.  There’s nothing wrong with touring a bunch of schools for interest sake, but I don’t think these tours should be a large factor in your decision.  If anything, these tours will market to your consumer desires as opposed to what matters in an undergraduate institution – educating yourself and obtaining the degree!

Credits: photo titled: American University ; by chucka_nc


CollegeQandA book review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Foer is a book about his year long experience of competing in the memory US championships.  Along this journey he looks at many of the ideas behind memorization and emphasizes how the memory athletes are just normal people and not super humans.

To prove this, he goes through a year long process of improving his memory for each of the competitions challenges.  These techniques can be practiced and used by anyone.  For example, what is the memory palace and how can you make your own?  Why does a memory palace work?

The book provides a little bit of the science, some practical memorization techniques, and an interesting story.  This rare combination makes the book both enjoyable to read and provides valuable ideas.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

Understanding how to improve your memory can be beneficial in a number of situations including your education.  Some courses will push you to memorize a large number of items, and understanding how world champions train can give you a few useful tricks to improve your own memory.  One of the key ideas in the book is that these memory champions are not exceptional human beings, but instead put a lot of time to practicing their art.

I would recommend this book to…

The book is both an interesting read and has some useful techniques that techniques that any of us can use to improve remembering things.  If you don’t know these basic skills, then I think the book is good for you.


CollegeQandA asks: When should I panic about school?

You need to track and extrapolate your progress

Unicorn statue

When should I panic about school?  Well, you should use the tools available to you to help you predict how you are performing and avoid disaster.  The first tool is the syllabus.  In the syllabus, you should find what are the assessment activities, how much are they worth to your overall grade in the course, and when will they be administered.

This information is about all you need to predict how you are doing in a particular course (and then all your courses).  Based on your current point of time in the course, extrapolate what you should get overall.  For example, if there are 10 assessments in the course and you have performed at an average of 60% on half of these, you should assume that on your current trajectory you will get 60% in the course unless some major change happens.

For some reason, however, students have an optimistic belief that they will perform better than what they have achieved so far.  This is an unrealistic belief.  To change future performance you need to make major changes, and these changes must happen soon and just don’t come with luck.

Panic shouldn’t happen

When a student walks in to my office hours half way through a course and asks, “What can I do?” the reality is it is too late.  We can try to help, but having completed half a course that builds upon itself, this point of discussion is a bad point to be at.  At this panic point, option one is to drop, and I think this is the best option (all the excuses such as financial aid, full-time standing, etc. should have been taken into account way earlier).  Option two is to try and get as many points from the rest of the course to finish with a “C” over a “D” or “F”.

This point should never happen to you, but if it does, then you have to realize that it was your choice and you have to deal with the consequences.  Avoiding this point is simple.  Learn throughout the course, do your work, and seek help when one assessment is not a success so you can figure out how to master the material.  Arriving at this point means you need to mitigate your losses, but you will suffer losses.

Still, I was like many of my students.  For some reason, I didn’t go to office hours when I needed help.  My fault was my laziness.  If you want to succeed, though, you can not get to the panic point, and you need to evaluate your performance at every point of a course.

Extra credit and other unicorns

Life happens.  In these situations, if you are prepared then you can mitigate the problems.  Most teachers and administrators understand that things come up that can wreck a semester, but when they do, you need to seek administration help and withdraw from the semester.  Also, you can drop some courses and put your energy into a smaller subset of others.  Yes, none of these situations are perfect, but that is the reality of the scenario.

Otherwise, excuses, pleading, and “what can I do for a better grade” are not real options.  There must be professors out there that provide these options, but all the ones I know don’t provide such things.  They’re unicorns, as in, they don’t exist.

If you needed a good grade in course X, then you need to work for a good grade in course X.  An “A” in a course demonstrates excellence in the material.  In theory, (is Harvard an exception) the “A” is difficult to earn without putting a significant work effort into the course.

Credit: photo titled: Unicorn ; by: Lemon~art