Category Archives: Why

These are questions about why in relation to colleges and universities

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

CollegeQandA asks: What is career fair and why should I go?

What is career fair?

What is a university career fair?  This isn’t that interesting a question, and as you can imagine, career fair has employers come the university to talk to students about careers at their respective companies/institutions.  A university can have a university wide career fair, but there can also be smaller career fairs that are focusing on a particular area or degree.  Most people think that career fairs should be attended in your graduating year where you dress up, and finally, look for a job post graduation.  The wiser among you should go early and often to learn and prepare for your career.  Nobody else will.

University career fairWhy should I go to career fair?

Well, yes, fourth year is a good time to go to career fair and try and find your future employer, but to be prepared for this culminating experience I suggest you go in your first, second, and third year too.  You want to go to learn how the career fair is done, and how you need to be prepared for the event.   For example, at Miami during career fair almost everyone is dressed in a business suit/attire, and students will line up to do short interviews with their prepared resumes that might be followed up with a post fair longer interview.  If you walk into the fair without the proper attire, then unless you’re looking to be recognized for your uniqueness, you stand out as unprepared.  Just knowing your basic career fair flow stops you from making these simple errors.

Also, just like doing integration, playing an instrument, or writing an essay, networking and interviewing are skills that need to be practiced.  Where can you get this practice beyond the mock interviews your career center might provide?  Career fair in your first and second year is great time to practice without any major consequences.  Also, you might find an internship early that will lead to your future career.

Keep in mind, university will help you develop some skills, but getting a job and the skills need to both get said job and perform well at it are your responsibility.  Career fair is a small piece of this, but one you should not ignore.

Credits: photo titled: SNRE Career Fair; by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment 

CollegeQandA asks: Why is university so expensive?

Why is university so expensive?

There is a general concern that the cost of higher ed is too high.  The question is, why is university so expensive?  The answer is the cost to pay people is high, and the funding for paying people is mainly left to the individual.

American money fanned outPeople are expensive

The people in the “university so expensive” case are the faculty and staff.  For example, to maintain a low faculty-to-student ratio (let’s say 20:1 which might be considered high) you arguably have 20 students paying for one faculty.  Let’s further argue that with benefits and pay the 20 students need to cover around 200,000 dollars.  Already, each of you needs to pay around 10,000 just for that single faculty.

Other ratios might enlighten us all

That single faculty is now paid, but what about the staff and administration needed to run a large institution.  What is the staff to student ration or the administration to student ratio?  What about the coach to student ratio?  Each one of these people has both pay and benefits, and therefore, tuition dollars also need to be allocated to these resources.

Who pays for the heat and electricity?  Who pays for the IT staff and infrastructure?  Who pays for the gym, career center, and grounds up keep?  It’s all part of tuition.

Does public education mean anything

In theory, public schools are fully (ha!) or partially funded by public tax dollars.  The idea is that we as a collective help pay for a young persons education to allow for their career mobility.  The reality is that less and less public funds are going to public universities, and as this happens the public university needs to raise tuition (or in a way, privately tax the young).

This is a societal choice, but under current trends an undergraduate degree is expensive, and the majority of the cost is used to pay the people that teach, maintain, and run the institution.  That’s why university is so expensive.

Credits: photo titled: Money Hand Holding Bankroll Girls February 08, 20117; by Steven Depolo

CollegeQandA asks: Why are projects so important in College?

Why are projects so important in College?Building Construction

Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join).  A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.

There are very few jobs in – taking exams

It’s true.  There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false.  The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”

Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas.  How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning?  Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost.  For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students).  If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down.  So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.

For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on.  That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.

Projects to the rescue

A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture.  Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.

I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in.  For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.

Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.

Is there anything projects can’t do?

The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect.  For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time.  What do they do?  Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work.  The same is not true in the real world.  A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired.  So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.

Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”.  Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something.  It seems like someone always free loads.  People are hard to work and get along with.

Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.

Projects are good

Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio.  Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker).  Projects can be lots of fun.  And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.

Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush

CollegeQandA asks: Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?

What is STEM?

Plant Stem

No, not plant stems or glass stems.  STEM is an acronym within education and industry for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  And because these fields have beneficial economic links to each countries success (economy, GDP, etc.), training people with these degrees is being pushed to students.

I’m biased in the following discussion.  I have degrees in computer engineering, and I believe that my engineering degrees have helped me not only in my profession, but have provided me knowledge and skills that helped make me a better person.

Is STEM good? better?

Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?  There is no good or better when it comes to pursuing degrees.  However, the reality is that from an income perspective and number of career based jobs linked that are linked to a degree, STEM based jobs have both higher starting and medium salaries and probabilities are higher that average performers will find jobs.  So you might perceive  that these degrees are better.

From an individuals perspective, I think your success and happiness are linked to your intrinsic motivation.  Do you want to work in your chosen area for at least the next 20 years of your life.  Are you willing to hate 8 to 9 hours of your day for compensation.  In some cases, those 20 working years are equal to or greater than the number of years you have lived.

Are STEM degrees harder?

The answer here is another yes/no.  For many students science, technology, and math seem hard and for that reason people get scared away.  Note, however, that becoming an excellent writer, artist, or all other so called “non-technical” person is equally hard.  Maybe being average is not hard, but because those other fields are more challenging to become employed in, you will tend to need to become excellent.

Many of the students I talk to who are pursuing engineering degrees have a similar fear or dislike for writing that is similar to their counterparts dislike of math and science.  The thing is, they’re all hard to become good at, and they all take time, grit, and pain to learn.  Also, success in a career requires more than just the knowledge you gain from a degreee.

Going forward…

Pick a field that you have interest in, you want to learn about, and you will seriously commit to learning in.  If you make a committed effort to learn something then you will find fascinating aspects within that field that will help you grow.  There is something to be said of picking a STEM degree because of the economic benefits of these degrees, but don’t think a single reason makes these degrees a good choice for you.

Credits: photo titled: Sunny Stem; by GollyGforce – Living My Worst Nightmare

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 asks: Why should I go to career fairs?


Career FairIn “How do I pick a major?”, the goal was to look at majors and why or how they might lead to careers as well as pursuing your interest in college.  One idea to note is that universities no dot prepare you for a career.  Let me restate that, universities do not prepare you for a career.  University degrees show (to some degree – no pun intended) that you have an understanding of some of the basic ideas and solution/design methods within that field.  Professional degrees (engineering, certain business degrees, architecture, etc.) lead more directly to a career, but still these degrees do not prepare you for your career.

One of the many things that universities do is provide resources for your many possible needs, but you must choose to take advantage of these resources.  Universities and colleges have many resources and events that will help you prepare for your career.  In some cases, a major might have a coop program to help you get experience for your career.  I define a coop program as a degree in which on alternating semesters you will spend your semesters either in class or working in degree related experience, and the school may or may not help you find that company (most likely they help and have connections).

Other than coop programs, the majority of career preparation is put on your shoulders as the student.  You will need to go to the career center and learn about preparing your resume, interviewing, and how to network to find a good job.

Career fair

Career fairs are another opportunity in this preparation that happens during the academic year where many companies will come to your institution and directly recruit from the student body.

Regardless of which year of study you are in, which degree you are majoring in, and even if you are a graduate or undergraduate, you should attend every career fair at your institution.

Why?  First, because these companies are focused on students from your institution, which suggests that they like what they get from your school.  More importantly, the information you can learn from these events will help you understand what skills and people companies want, which can then be used to ask really big questions.  Why are these traits and skills desired?  How do those skills make money for that company?  What message does what I wear send, and how does that message relate to the economics in our world?  Do I want to be part of these types of money generating machines?  Will the goals of these companies align with my goals for the world?  Is my time given to this industry and compensated by money worth it?

Examining these questions in the hyper-impressionism world of a career fair will help you decide what your career might or might not be.

Go to career fairs in your first-year, and learn what they are about.  If you want to take a corporate path, then learn what it takes to land an entry job in these companies.  Find out which internships are available, and in the worse case, try an internship with a company to get a feel for how different academics and education is compared to various industries and the so-called real-world.  Learn what people do in a company on a daily basis, and ask does that sound like something you would be interested in doing.

Your life and career are shaped by you and your efforts.

Credits: photo titled: 14-03-06 Spring ’14 Career Fair (Edited) (124) ; by: Romer Jed Medina

CollegeQandA asks: Why do I have to buy this textbook?

Textbooks – a major cost in university

text book stack: Why do I have to buy this textbook? Why do I have to buy this textbook?  At 50 dollars a book, roughly on the low end, and at 500 dollars on the high end, textbooks can be a major cost in university.  Let’s take a look at textbooks from three angles –  teacher, student, and the market.

Teachers perspective

From the professors perspective there are a number of reasons that a textbook is used with a class.  First and foremost, the textbook is complimentary/supplementary material as related to the course.  This means that ideas covered in lecture are also covered in the textbook in another voice, and by another voice, I mean that the authors of the textbook are teaching the material through writing, images, examples, and problems in a different way than the professor.  This is the most valuable aspect of a textbook, as supplementary information, but don’t think that the assigned textbook is the only voice to use to help your learn the course’s ideas.

There is this strange building(s) called the library that, likely, carries a number of textbooks in the related topic.  If you don’t like, are having trouble with, or can’t understand the assigned textbook, consult other textbooks to find the voice that speaks to you best and helps you learn the material.

Teachers might also use a textbook to help them organize how to present the material.  In some cases, your professor is not an expert in the field, and has some expertise, but not to the detail of teaching without a textbook.  In these cases, textbooks provide teachers with insight on one ways to organize the ideas and present them in a logical progression.  This includes problems and challenges associated with the material, which a textbook has carefully created, and likely, has worked out solutions.  Creating a problem related to the material is tricky.

Finally, teaching is time consuming.  Full disclosure: Textbook writers and publishers will incentivize professors by preparing materials including lectures, problems, exams, and quizzes so that the professor can save some of their time.

Student perspective

A textbook can be a major cost to your budget, but even required textbooks are not necessarily required.  You need to find out:

  1. How is the textbook used in this class?  Consult the syllabus and ask the teacher.  Is there open book exams and is this the only textbook you can use?  Are problems assigned from the textbook?
  2. Are there cheaper formats of the textbook – online, used, renting?  Depending on how the textbook is being used this can be fine, but beware that different textbook editions may change the problem numbering, references, and even include different material.
  3. Does the book make sense at my level of understanding?  If you can’t understand the book, check for others in the library.
  4. Does the book provide enough examples?   If it doesn’t do as above, and also look for problem and example books.
  5. Will the book be used in more than one class?  If it is, then the one-time cost can be thought of as lower as you divide the cost per class.
  6. Is this the textbook that everyone uses?  There are some textbooks that many universities use and professionals keep as a reference.  Check to see if the textbook is on all the professors shelves, or if someone working in the field has kept the book.  Normally, these textbooks will appear in your third and fourth year.
  7. How many copies and what lending out rules does the library have for the textbook?  Note that the textbook might be available in the library, but how long can you have it for?

Introductory textbooks in areas such as physics, calculus, english, philosophy, etc. are numerous and come in all shapes and sizes.  I found these books to be less useful, but again depending on question 1 you may or may not need to buy it.

One of the best methods to learn about textbooks is to make friends with people who are a year or two ahead of you and ask them what they thought about the textbook.  Peers provide valuable advice, but don’t take that advice as law.  More than one opinion and thinking for yourself is important in this decision, and the cheaper route is not always the best route.

Market perspective

This is the perspective I have the least understanding of since I’ve never been part of it.   As a student, I felt that many textbooks were a means to make money adding very little value to my courses.  On other occasions, the textbook taught me the course since the professor did such a poor job.

As a professor, the market is making someone money, and note, it is probably not your professor.  I would guess that a few publishers and bookstores are doing very well selling books.
Textbooks are part of university and college life.  Take some time to figure out if you need the book.

Credits: Photo by Logan Ingills; titled: just the ones i’m getting rid of

CollegeQandA asks: Why can’t I use my phone in class?

Why can’t I use my phone in class?

This question may or may not be something you wonder depending on your professor(s).  In my classes, the syllabus states:

  • Texting, surfing, or any other out of class communication should be kept to the back rows of the classroom. Such behavior has no impact on your grade, but equally, the lack of attention in class means you should not expect me to make an effort in helping you deal with topics you miss in class due to lack of attention.
  • Cell phones should be kept silent (including vibration) during class.

In my classes, I allow devices to be used, but I require two things.  First, you do not cause interruptions for other people who want to learn and focus. This is the reason I ask that laptops and phones to be used at the back.   People like looking at screens, and if you are in the front row of the class on a YouTube page or social media site then a high number of students will be distracted and will look at your screen.  Second, if you are not paying attention, then don’t expect me to repeat materials for you.  Attention (just like attendance) is a choice that you get to make.

Why can’t I use my phone in THIS class?

There are, however, professors who strictly ban devices and screens from their classes.  Is this fair?  That’s an interesting question/debate that I’ve had with many of my colleagues where I come from the allow-in-class side.  What I have found from these discussions is there are two reasons for banning devices.  In their minds, instructors are either trying to help you focus by banning devices or view the activity of checking your devices in their lecture as rude.

I find the second argument, rudeness, fascinating based on my experiences at academic meetings and conferences.  In a room at one of these gatherings of 20 people, I’m happy and surprised to make a presentation where 5 of those people are paying attention without looking at a screen at some point in my fifteen minute presentation (maybe I’m just a bad presenter).  Therefore, since my colleagues can’t separate from their screens, how can I force my students to.  In modern day society, the rudeness of focusing on your screen even in mid-conversation is not considered bad manners in some circles (not all).

cyborg portraitHelping you to focus and control your screen addictions is a noble goal, but I believe that this is a personal challenge for all first generation cyborgs (my designation for anyone with a smartphone).  We all need to learn and practice our ability to focus (to recommended books of interest: Focus and Willpower).

But I need [device X] for …

The counter arguments that I’ve heard from students is the need for the device in class to learn.   Sure, there are certain situations where this makes sense.  For example, I’ve been known to ask my classes if they could look up something online for all of us.

If you think these devices are good for taking note, then you appear to be wrong.  An article (The pen is mightier than the keyboard) written by Mueller and Oppenheimer reports results from their study that finds that a laptop is worse for retaining the lecture compared to traditional pen and paper.

Also, your smartphone is not a good scientific calculator (at present) since it is very unlikely that you will be allowed to use it in exams.  Instead, your base calculator and scientific calculator (my beloved TI-85) need to be used regularly so that you can learn how to use that device.  There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to use a function on your calculator during an exam or quiz.

Some classes have come up with ways to integrate modern technology.  Twitter or other social collaborative methods  (such as wikis) have been effectively used to allow real-time questions and collaboration from students.  There will be other innovations too, but we still seem to be in an era of technology is lauded as the great learning device, but soon becomes sometimes beneficial to learning on rare occasions.

Credit: Photo from Michelle Zell-Wiesmann; title: Cyborg


CollegeQandA asks: Why do my professors write on a board? Are we in the 90s?

Technological Luddites can’t teach me

Why do my professors write on a board?  Haven’t we crossed the 2000s and embraced the electronic slide presentation, the multimedia formats, and technology to teach?  Note, none of these are bad, but there’s a reason the board and pen’s and paper are powerful tools.

Early on in graduate school, I was fortunate to be taught by Zvonko Vranesic.  Not only did he encourage me to understand the world better, he was an inspiration as someone who thought about many things – among his accomplishments included being an International Master of Chess, no less.

He gave me two teaching tips that I have kept in my arsenal as I work towards becoming a good teacher.  Related to the question, he told me why you should teach using the board when you can.

white board writing
Ramblings on a white board

Much of the lecture is about pace

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