Monthly Archives: October 2016

CollegeQandA asks: What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

The reality is the questions here are the big questions we all have.  In university, your mentors are great for asking simple questions to such as: “which course should I do next?” or “what are some good career options to look in to?”.  More complex questions, which are usually individual and deep personal searches, are hard for all of us.

Does that mean you shouldn’t have those discussions with your advisors and mentors?  No, but expect them to be long conversations that you will need to reflect on more than you possibly thought going in.

Person in meditation by water

So, what are these questions?

“What should I do with my life/career/major?”

Those are big questions.  Flavors of that question are hidden in others such as, “should I do this major or this major?” or “will I like this job?”

There are two certainties to deep questions of your future.  One, it’s a personal decision.  Two, the decision can be an educated decision, but is impossible to make as right or wrong – it is just a chosen path.

Find office hour times to have this discussion – quiet times are best

Your mentors and advisors can provide suggestions on how to help explore these questions, but they can not solve them for you.  For even something as simple as picking a major and what career will I have once I complete this major, all an advisor can tell you is where people have gone previously with certain paths, and provide insight on their own experiences and paths.

The bigger task is for you to determine which path you want to take now.  And here is the problem.  Not all paths can be taken.  Only one can be pursued.  At some point, you just have to make a decision and take a path.  Once on that path, observe opportunities and, potentially, take other paths.  A little bit of reflection and thought along the path will guide you in, hopefully, better directions for you, but the unpredictable is, well, unpredictable.

Credits: photo titled: Wisdom; by Moyan Brenn

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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

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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

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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

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