Category Archives: Book reviews

These are book reviews based on books I read and some that I would recommend. They also include how they relate to colleges and universities.

CollegeQandA reviews: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Book Review: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools is an excellent book for teachers (and some learners) on what may be wrong with our teaching approach; it isn’t necessarily us, but might be an institutional situation.  After reading this book, I had to get back to blogging.  I’ve been trying to finish up my own book, and this book comes along and shatters/challenges/supports many of my previous perspectives on teaching in an elegant succinct way.

So, why is this book shattering some of my views on education?  Well, having read the book, many of the ideas line up well with preexisting beliefs I have about learning.  Dr. Schank, however, structures many of these ideas in a better way.

The major idea in the book is his clear explanation in chapter 4 of the “twelve cognitive principles that underlie learning”.   His main thesis is that these principles are captured in what we all do in our lives, jobs, and education, and that they should be a fundamental focus of learning as opposed to knowledge and content.  We tend to focus more on content than action.

The majority of the book looks at these principles and their application/relation to education.  A few other interesting aspects and ideas in the book include:

  • Chapter 11 shifts to an attack on colleges and universities, which includes many strong arguments on to what these institutions do and how they might be changed.
  • Schank states that teaching should not include the assigning of grades/marks by the teacher, and instead the assessment of performance should be done by a separate entity.
  • The idea that nothing can be learned if it doesn’t involve failure.
  • An examination or test implies that a field has a right way and a wrong way.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

It’s all about teaching, learning, and universities.  In a way, I wish these were my ideas, and I’ll, likely, reference this book in future posts.

I would recommend this book to…

This book is written at a level appropriate for teachers.  I think the concepts are understandable by all, but many of the arguments drift into the world of higher ed and cognitive views that might not be at the level of college bound students.   However, I think this is a good book for everyone to take a look at to better understand learning and a bit of the why things are the way they are in education and how we might, possibly, do better.


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.


CollegeQandA book review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Book Review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World is written by Valiant and is a deeply academic book investigating learning in relation to complexity theory (a field in computer science).  It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone since some of the technical aspects are challenging, but it’s ideas are fascinating and I would recommend that everyone reads it (= paradox).

The main premise of the book is to take learning algorithms and evolution and make an attempt to better formalize these ideas in the framework of complexity theory.   Valiant explains aspects of complexity theory, evolution, and learning in the book, but depending on your prior knowledge you might need to visit these ideas in a more introductory context.  Valiant classifies learning algorithms as “ecorithms”.

For me, the book has sparked the imagination on some new threads of learning, and that is the main reason I think this book is so interesting.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

As mentioned already, the book will be hard to read for some people.  I don’t think these ideas are targeted for a general audience, but I think the value in the book is it presents some fascinating ideas within a context that makes them more theoretically grounded.  For anyone interested in learning, I would include this book as part of the must read library.  Therefore, if there is aspects of learning  in the book then it relates to this blog, but the connection is much weaker than my typical book reviews.

I would recommend this book to…

People interested in technical aspects of learning with the caveat that the book may require some additional learning to understand some of the ideas.


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 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 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 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 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 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.


CollegeQandA book review: A (Mind/for) = Numbers

Book Review: A (Mind/for) = Numbers

A (Mind/for) = Numbers book cover
Fluent Forever: A Mind for Numbers is written by Oakley who has her Ph.D. in engineering, but started off her academic/learning life with a fear of  science and math.

This book is titled and focused to the math and science adverse, but oddly enough, I would argue that the book is about learning and not so much about the math and science aspects (though there are many stories of STEM based people and how they overcame their challenges and succeeded in STEM type fields).  The book is focused on how we learn, how ideas get moved into our long term memory, dealing with procrastination, and other learning based ideas that will help all of us.

I think that this book paired with The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking are an excellent starting set of resources to help students understand and improve their learning.  Also, for interested teachers, I think these types of books are great in providing new insights to how people learn and, possibly, how to teach their ideas so that student’s improve on how they learn.  For example, the book introduced me to research on why it is useful to have many fully solved problems available for students to help them learn.  I held the opposite belief (not backed by science), and I was concerned that students with many worked out problems will reverse engineer the problem solving method and then just pattern match problems to a methodology.  It turns out that this process can be a vital part of learning.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This is another book I would classify as meta-learning.  In these cases, students and teachers will both benefit from a deeper understanding of how we all learn, and therefore, this adds to answering one of CollegeQandA’s key questions: How do I learn?

I would recommend this book to…

For those of you who are math and science adverse, then this book provides insights, stories, and knowledge about learning in relation to those scary subjects that will help you succeed.  However, I think this book is a good book on helping us understand how to learn better, and therefore, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their learning and thinking – which should be all of us.