Category Archives: How

These are college and university questions related to how to do X at them or with them etc.

CollegeQandA asks: How do national politics and universities mix?

How do national politics and universities mix?

Into this rabbit hole we go since I’m late for a very important debate.  The complexity of this question is so deep that in this post I’ll just try to make an argument from the perspective one or two starting assumptions and see where this takes us.

Starting assumptions

Assumption 1 – universities are institutions of learning.

This assumption means that those of us at higher educational institutions are fundamentally there to learn.  This assumption captures both the ideas of research and education.

Assumption 2 – in a democratic society, national politics is about choosing representatives (by a form of majority selection) that will participate in the government systems of decisions that guides and runs a nation.

The  running a nation is far more complex than any one person can possibly understand, and therefore, most of our nations have created a system within which the economy, laws, social programs, and public infrastructure and services are created, administered, and funded.  Representatives in democratic governments modify, add, and delete parts of the system based on their decisions.

So where’s the intersection?

Not surprisingly the intersection itself is complex.  Many people at a university will study and participate in intersecting fields that relate to government such as political science, journalism, sociology, history, …  Universities will get funding, whether through grants, scholarships, or direct dollars that come from the government.  People at the institution (both students and staff) will be voters in the election.  Institutions will suggest policy ideas.  The intersection is massive and because of it the challenges are great on how to navigate changing politics of both institution and nation.

The real question

So, the real question is what is the role of higher education to the nation.  I pose two of many possibilities (with personal bias to 1):

  1. These institutions are places of inquiry and debate where all ideas are part of the open discussion and exploration.  Yes, ideas can be against your beliefs, but ideas should not be hidden just because they’re challenging to you.   This gets even trickier when ideas challenge a core value that many of us have for basic human rights (where human = all humans and rights = {I can’t define this well enough, but it’s related to the golden rule}).  Is there a limit on what ideas can be explored?
  2. These institutions are places of learning such that what is learned is, mainly, applicable to economic growth and older ideas, which includes students developing a better understanding of the world and being prepared to work within our national economies.

One more piece to the puzzle

Technology – Every new technology is a Pandora’s box that gives us benefits and costs, and each technology impacts the capabilities of us, our institutions, and our nation.  Computation, AI, DNA, nuclear energy, all-2-all communication on the internet, and so on allow us to do new things, but always come with some cost/change.

So, how should universities deal with politics while dealing with an ever changing technological world?  We should provide a space to discuss, debate, think, and question possibilities.  Where else is this going to happen?  Or, we can just ignore all of it – and read the next article in my feed.

CollegeQandA asks: How do I write a great entrance essay that gets me into elite schools?

How do I write a great entrance essay that gets me into elite schools?

This is a post title that I’ve seen much of lately.  College bound students are trying to get in the best school possible.  The reason to do this is… what is the reason to go to the best most elite school?

"Elite" spraypaint art

Why go to school X?

My general opinion on choice of schools is to go

  • In state – because of lower costs and quality of education
  • Public – lower costs and quality of education
  • Community college – for first one or two years (if credits transfer) because of lower cost, quality of education, and low risk investment to test your motivation

In other words, find the lowest cost entry point to higher education in the beginning of your higher ed path to evaluate if the institution, degrees, and learning environment are worth the huge investment.

Are there reasons to divert from this?

Of course there are.  If you and your family have the means to send you anywhere, then you should go anywhere.  For the other 99% of us, then you should question why a special school is for you (also don’t go there just because of sports team X since you can wear sports team X’s clothing and still be a fan minus the thousands of dollars in education fees).

What are the benefits of private schools?  These schools have more control over what they focus on, where their money is allocated, and what their mission is as an institution.   Their alumni network will, typically, be strong.

What are the benefits of elite schools?  These schools have the benefits of private institutions plus – These schools tend to have a student body that self-selected as the high performers in traditional schooling.  These schools have a recognition signal  (how the world perceives them) that is known world-wide instead of state, regional, or nationwide.

Is the education better at more elite schools?

Possibly.  The best students, in theory, should provide an environment and community of deep thought, inquiry, and learning.  This isn’t always the case since competitive students can continue to compete to be the best of the best at the expense of helping and creating a great learning community.

I don’t think that undergraduate education at elite schools results in significantly different outcomes.  The exception is schools that provide unique cultures that tie well to existing trends such as entrepreneurship and nontraditional educational paths.

So how do you write that essay?

Good question.  I’m of the lesser group that never tried the route of the elite.  If I had to write an essay, I would probably write about LEGO and it’s future in education.  At least that would be interesting for me to write about.  Not sure I would get in, though.

Credits: photo titled: Elite; by Daniel Lobo

CollegeQandA asks: How important are my grades?

How important are my grades?

Package with eggsI’m from Canada and I like to say, “we grade eggs, but we assess people to give them feedback on their learning”.

I, personally, think public grades as a measurement device of people is a bad idea.  Of course, I’m one of those weird people that is focused on this idea of learning.  From my perfect world perspective, I think that grades can be a summative indicator of your performance on an assessment(s).  As a private feedback measurement a grade is useful in helping the learner have a summary indicator that shows their performance on learning.  The summary grade with detailed feedback on what other aspects of the task that need to be worked on is a useful way for the learner to try and move forward.

Forget your utopia, how important are grades

In a credentialist (not sure that’s a word) based society, grades are important.  The reality is that grades are used by institutions to quickly evaluate people.  For example, a company with an entry level position might receive 300 applications for this job.  One simple way to filter these 300 candidates is to make a grade point average (GPA) mark and cut everyone who hits below that line.  This is needed since it is difficult and time consuming to evaluate all 300 people for a single position efficiently.

In many ways, we use grades as a quick indicator of how a person is performing in topic areas.  From a student perspective, grades are important since they impact what possibilities are available once completing a degree in particular for that first job.

Still important?

The odd thing with your GPA is it becomes almost irrelevant once you get your first job.  This is because your next job or promotion will be based on what experience you have at getting things done.  Or as I like to say, “Can you do things?”

The grade is a very poor measurement of your doing stuff ability.  However, if your job is taking tests, then it is a great indicator.

Going forward

So, yes, grades are important, but learning and doing is much more important for the long game.  The grade is a single measurement signal of how you have performed.  Going forward though, the portfolio is becoming  a more appropriate signal of your ability (and not just for artists).  In college, every major project you do, create, and build is a better signal that demonstrates what you can do.  This includes your activities outside traditional class and you should be curating a web presence to host this portfolio.

If your GPA is not as good as you need it to be, then not all is lost.  If you have a portfolio of what you can do, you can work your way into entry jobs at smaller and lesser (in the eyes of the public) institutions.  People who can learn and do things are valuable.  So, it’s not all about grades, but good grades tend to correlate to people who learn, work hard, and do things.  And that’s the chicken back to the graded egg.

Credits: photo titled: Eggs; by bunnicula

CollegeQandA asks: How are professors trained to teach?

How are professors trained to teach?

An interesting question that not many undergraduates understand is: How are professors trained to teach?

Baby with glasses on

The secret is, most of us are not trained in any teaching.  Graduate degrees (Masters and Ph.Ds.) are degrees pursuing leading edge research and creative endeavors.  Many of your professors will have no formal training in education other than some basic courses.

Why do they have no training?

Many graduate schools around the world have programs that help train graduate students to teach.  Typically, new faculty will have orientation and additional programs/workshops to help them improve their classroom teaching.  In the end, with all this training a professor will have spent at most 20-40 hours of educational training.  Compare that time to a typical higher education class worth 3 credit hours.  Over 15 weeks, student’s will have had at least 45 hours of class time on the topic of the class.

So, professors will have some training in education, but in reality, the training is very limited, but the rest of the learning to teach is done (or not done) by ourselves.  The reason for this is that teaching training is not a priority within higher education.  Instead, there seems to be a mentality of I learned this way and this stuff, and therefore, my students can also learn this way and this stuff.  There’s not a huge problem with this mentality since for decades the model has worked, and people still get careers and work in their respective fields.

Is there a case for improvement?

As an engineer (not practicing), I’m not too crazy about my above argument.  One of my question is if professors are better teachers then, on average, will our students learn more?  I don’t have any direct research to answer this question.  I, at least, believe that universities could make some real attempt at testing this crazy question.  Many schools have taking a dedication to teaching and learning.  Is your school one?

Credits: photo titled: Professor Baby; by Quinn Dombrowski


CollegeQandA asks: How important is prioritizing in College?

How important is prioritizing in College?

ticket dispenser

Some people would argue that time management is the most important skill that most college students don’t have when they come to college.  I would put a few skills higher, but managing your time is important (especially since the teachers aren’t going to micromanage you like they may have in high school).  The first step is to learn how to prioritize – meaning which tasks should you focus most of your effort on.

The 80/20 rule

First, you should be aware of a general idea – the 80/20 rule.  This is a rule of thumb that roughly states that you get 80% of your results for 20% of the tasks you focus on.  This means that you need to figure out what is that 20% so you can get it done and get 80% of the success.  Basically, this is one form of prioritization.

No is a valid answer

Another challenge with students is figuring out what to say no to or, simply, not do.  In terms of academics, you may be overwhelmed and have to not do something for your classes – we’ll look at this below.  Even more important is saying no to the extra-curricular activities.  I would argue that most extra-curricular activities fit outside the 80% result domain, and you need to forgo those commitments when you don’t have enough time.  Beware of college task bloat that many students experience because they say yes to everything.  I would argue you can have 2 big activities in your college life.  One is academics.  That means you have one more to spend on a sport, club, hobby, social life, etc.  Don’t spread to thin.

Academic prioritization

With an understanding of no and the 80/20 rule, the question is how do you prioritize and time manage your education.  The first place to start is the syllabus.  The syllabus gives you a direct view of what activities in a class are assessed, and how much that assessment impacts your overall grade.

Yes, most assessments and class activities are there to help you learn the material (and you should do them).  If you manage your time well, stay up with a class from day one, and work at the material you really shouldn’t have to prioritize in terms of not doing these activities, but there are times when you need to decide what is most important to do.

Also, consider weighing how well you need to do on various assessments for your overall goals.  If you have a realistic expectation of the grades you want in your classes, then you can shift your workload to focus on the assessments and activities that will allow you to achieve those goals.  For example, if I’m going to get an A in computer science even if I don’t do too well on the final project, means even though I enjoy working on that project, I should reduce the time spent on it to focus on something else that needs more time.

Learn to prioritize to get that 80% success.

Credits: photo titled: take a number; by Mike Mozart

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 asks: How bad is it to drop a class?

What does it mean to drop a class?

Parachute dropDropping a course means removing that course from your schedule before certain dates such that you will not get a traditional letter grade in the course that impacts your overall record, and there might be some monetary refund (if you pay per course).  Depending on dates at your university, a dropped course might appear on your transcript (official record) as dropped, and you might not get any money back.

Typically, in the early part of a semester (first few weeks depending on the university), you can drop a course with no transcript record or cost.  Later in the semester (normally before the half-way point) you can drop the course and this tends to be recorded with an annotation such as “dropped”, “withdrawn – W”, or something similar.  Also, this later type of drop usually does not result in any refund.  Check your universities “academic calendar” that should list these specific dates.

Why would you drop a course?

First off, most early drops are done because a student is still adjusting their schedule and figuring out what their course preference is for the semester.  These types of drops are minor in the big scheme of dropping, so I won’t deal with them and let’s move on to the other types.

Withdrawals later in the semester are the types of drops we are really talking about.  The first factor in dropping is can you drop?  There are different university rules for full-time standing, financial aid, scholarships, staying on campus, etc. which can impact your situation.  Depending on your course load dropping a course can have repercussions beyond academics, so be knowledgeable about the rules for your case.

If you can drop, then the question is should you?  From a repercussion stand point, dropping means that you potentially will delay graduation, which in turn means it may cost you more to complete your degree.  For example, dropping can result in a prerequisite challenge where you can’t take other courses since you are missing the prerequisite, and beware that there are things called prerequisite chains where course A is needed for course B is needed for course C and so on.

On the other hand, you are usually dropping a course because the workload and likelihood of success are, respectively, big and bad.  Given your circumstances, continuing in the course will have a significant impact on your grades, and as little a fan I am of grades, “F” and “D” are not good letters to have on your transcript (“F” is way worse than “D”).  My question as an adviser to students in this situation is, why are you on the edge of failure – knowing that it is probably because you haven’t been continually working on the course.

All sorts of things happen in life that can result in needing to drop a course.  Beyond delaying graduation, what impact might this have on your career?  My perspective is that a few drops have no impact on your career.  An interviewer might ask you why you dropped course X, but these can should be able to be easily explained.  For example, I was overwhelmed that semester and chose to drop that course.  However, multiple withdrawals of the same course Y or a large number of withdrawals can be a red flags for recruiters.

Bottom line

Drop a course if you have to.  Life will throw curve balls that make this choice completely reasonable given your situation.  It’s not a sign of failure, personal value, or anything other than you dropped a course.  Just beware of the rules and repercussions, and try to stay with each of your courses from day one so that this is not an issue.

Credits: photo by: Program Executive Office Soldier; title: Maneuverable Canopy (MC) Personnel Parachute System


CollegeQandA asks: How do I pick a major?

The big question rated number 1 for many

For high school students and even first year students, “How do I pick a major?” is the question.  A major is the area of focus, within academia, that you spend the majority of your 4 years of study exploring and learning about.  In many cases, we associate a major with what you are becoming in terms of your future career.

So, in some ways “how do I pick a major?” is the same question as “what do you want to be when you grow up?” that adults ask children throughout time.

My book takes a look at some of these ideas in more detail, but let’s define a few things here:

  • A job is trading your time (and skills) for compensation
  • A career is a path in a set of related jobs of with some goal of getting to a job where you do (mostly) what you want to do on a daily basis
  • A degree is awarded for completing the set requirements usually including a concentration in a major
  • A professional degree is a degree that is a credential step towards a career in a focused concentration
  • Vocational training is a process to teach you a set of skills customized for a specific job(s)

So how does that help you pick a major?

Universities don’t train you for a job

The first thing to truly grasp is you major is not necessarily your future job.  For example, a computer engineer major will start their career in a vast number of jobs that can include engineering work, sales, training, etc.  In other words, I couldn’t list all the jobs that someone who did a major in computer engineering does.  Even in one of my narrow research fields: Field Programmable Gate Arrays, the list of jobs which you need this major for easily goes over 100!

Therefore, we can not train you in a major for a job.  You will have to prepare for your career while pursuing your degree in your major, and yes, the university will provide great opportunities to do that (career center, career fairs, company visits, etc.), but that is not the universities primary goal.  It is up to you to shape your career.

A major is your opportunity to explore an area of interest (caveat economics)

Most of us have to worry about our future career, income, and financial stability.  The tricky part is how can you pursue what you are truly interested in while balancing the realities of your future career and your family situation.  There seems to be evidence that your major choice correlates to your family’s current financial status.

If I was allowed to choose what I was interested in when I was 18, then it would have been video games and basketball.  My parents, however, were not going to pay for my education if it did not include science, engineering, or math.  I was fortunate to find a compromise in computer engineering.  Was that a compromise?

As I’ve matured, I have come to believe that engineering can be applied to almost any other interest.  For example, if you like sports, then the mathematics, analytics, and modeling applies to understanding sports better in – see Moneyball or The Wages of Wins.   I’m biased towards my experiences in engineering and so is our economically driven world, but do we only need technologists?  I think any major can be applied to any interest, and you should leverage these connections in your pick, and take time to consider how you will mold your major into your career.  There are a common set of what we would call high-level skills needed in all industry – thinking, communicating, and doing.

I, also, think the key to picking a major is to find something that has a spark of inspiration and motivation for you, and you should have some aptitude in that field or be willing to work really hard to develop needed skills.  You need that drive to help get you excited to explore that something more deeply.

Finally, it’s not that big a deal

How do I pick a major?  The question scares all of us.  This decision will define your future.  Your parents hope you pick something that means you won’t live with them forever.  The country needs you to contribute to our bottom line.  Yikes.

Book : You majored in what

In many cases, however, it doesn’t matter that much.  If you have some motivation, curiosity, and interest in learning, then you will find a topic, professor, class, or hobby that starts you on your future path.  You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career is a great book that will help you understand what seems to happen for at least half of us.  If anything keep your mind open to opportunities and learn what you can.

CollegeQandA asks: How do I find high quality friends in College?

New friends…

One of the greatest things about going to college and university is the new friends you will meet.  For one, these new friends self-selected to go to college, and the population of a college as compared to your high school suggests that there is a greater chance in this larger pool of people that some or many will share your interests both academic and hobbies.

Be warned that your friends have a big influence on you, and make sure that some of them are quality friends who share the same academic, career, and life goals, or you will be fighting an uphill battle.

Picture of colonel by engineering building
The building where we met and spent most of our time for undergraduate – Colonel By.

How important are your friends?

Continue reading CollegeQandA asks: How do I find high quality friends in College?

Question – How should I use college rankings – Money’s article “Special Report: Best College Values 2015” ?

This morning I got my copy of Money (note, the only reason I get this magazine is was part of a deal to get the Economist).  In this months magazine there is an article on the best college values for 2015: Special Report: Best College Values 2015.  I’ll talk to the idea of rankings and ratings.

Rankings and ratings are by far, the easiest way to figure out whether something is better than something else based on a system of measurement.  However, rankings are created by joining together a number of numbers (metrics), and the real question about a particular ranking for a given system is are those ratings relevant to what you are interested in?  When I was picking colleges, we used Maclaen’s (a Canadian magazine), and I remember wondering why the number of books in the library mattered to my undergraduate education (that metric is no longer used).  Sure there might be some indirect learning value to the number of books in the library, but should that have been a key metric in the ranking?

In the Money article, there are some interesting categories.  The tuition price and potential financial aid can be very important to some people, but they left out the difference between in- and out- of state differences.  The category “early career earnings” is biased to schools that focus primarily on engineering and technology.   For both “value added grade” and “career services” these are based on a letter grade.  This means there is a rubric or criteria definition that is used to categorize a university in a grade.  In all, I think the rankings provides you with some numbers that you might consider when picking schools to apply for.

The second lesson for looking at rankings is to look into how each category is defined and calculated.  In the case of the number of books, what was the count if there were duplicate books?  In this article, quality of education is based on areas such graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, and RateMyProffessor grades.  What do these metrics reflect and can they be manipulated?  The answer is it’s hard to say for your individual case and, yes, the stats can and are manipulated.  For example, here are some ideas on manipulating the student to faculty ration.

So how can you use these ratings?  Well, these numbers and rankings should be part of the information you collect to make your decision.  If anything, use the bottom of the list as a warning that those particular schools might have problems, but check if the real reason they are at the bottom is meaningful to your situation.  The university I work at, Miami University, is ranked/tied at 171st.  Would I recommend Miami over any of the higher ranked schools?  Yes.  If you live in Ohio, the major you want to pursue is available, and you’re interested in active early engagement with professors and early exposure to research, then yes.